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Jatropha projects should not be allowed to die

BY CHIPO MASARA

When the Mt Hampden joint venture biodiesel fuel ma-nufacturing project between Zimbabwe and Yuon Woo of South Korea was established in 2007, most of us welcomed the very timely initiative.

The project that was launched amid pomp and funfare gave Zimbabweans, who had endured years of fuel shortages, high expectations. But four years down the line, the project, which was supposed to be driven by a consistent supply of jatropha seed, can now be safely considered a “white elephant”.

Discovering the jatropha plant and its potential in a developing nation like Zimbabwe was like an answer to a very long prayer for an end to the fuel crisis. It therefore boggles the mind as to how the country, considering the investment made on the plant, could even consider dumping the project.

When the then cash-strapped government established the multi-million dollar biodiesel project in 2007, many were forced to acknowledge that even though it might have been capital-intensive, it was a worthy investment.

Many hoped it would yield a lot of returns for the country in the long run. A number of stakeholders joined in the initiative.
They included the Agricultural Research Trust (ART), Biomass Users Network (BUN), Forestry Commission, Environment Africa and the Plant Oil Producers Association (Popa).

They went on to establish different jatropha projects throughout the country. It was clear then that many were determined to see the initiative bear fruits.

However, most of the projects have apparently lost the “fire’’, which raises fears that Zimbabwe may never get to realise the potential of the jatropha plant or any other viable alternative  energy sources for that matter.

Zimbabwe’s primary energy sources comprises coal, thermal and hydropower and solar energy. The country has an abundance of coal reserves, enough to last for a long period to come.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, the country, like the rest of the world, finally acknowledged that the burning of fossil fuels is having an adverse effect on the environment.

Recent studies state that the process (burning fossil fuels) is speeding up global warming, whose effects are being experienced, among them the erratic rainfall patterns that now prevail, especially in Africa.

The situation calls for cleaner and environmentally friendly energy sources, and that is why the jatropha plant offers a very attractive alternative. Zimbabwe’s weather conditions, among other factors, are highly favourable for the growing of jatropha carcas L, a multi-purpose large shrub which is drought-resistant and can grow on lands not suitable for agriculture.

Attempts to meet the country’s energy requirements has had a terrible impact on the country’s environment. The persistent cutting down of trees for firewood has worsened deforestation in Zimbabwe.

And furthermore, since jatropha oil is a cleaner source of energy than other types of fuel, it would save the health of many rural women, most of whom suffer cooking in smoke-filled little kitchens.

Zimbabwe has nothing to lose and everything to gain by carrying the jatropha production projects forward. The Energy and Power Development ministry must re-assess its position and make fresh calls for the revival of the abandoned projects as that would assure the country of viable future energy supplies.

There is need for the whole country to join in the discussion on the potential of jatropha and for potential growers to have a reliable information base about the economics of the plant.

JATROPHA IS BENEFICIAL TO THE ENVIRONMENT

Jatropha cultivation does not in any way compete with food production. Jatropha seeds contain about 35% of non-edible oil. That is, 6kg of seeds gives about 1,2 litres of oil, which can be converted to a number of uses, among them cooking and lighting, as an alternative for paraffin, as broiler fuel for industrial purposes and as a viable substitute for diesel.

But maybe the most appealing quality about the plant is its benefits to the environment, most significant of which is its ability to hedge and shelter belts by improving humus and fertilisers to the soil, thereby enhancing the productivity of other crops.

It is also capable of growing on marginal lands and has the ability to restore eroded areas and can serve as an efficient windbreak.
The truth of the matter is that the jatropha plant has the potential to lessen Zimbabwe’s energy woes, with the whole country currently experiencing “dark spells’’ as a result of the persistent power cuts.

The plant also has the potential to elevate the rural poor who, besides getting an income from growing jatropha, will have a cheaper source of fuel.

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