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Zim biofuel project, a tale of trickery, misplaced priorities

THE search for a permanent solution to the country’s fuel supplies has been a tail of pranks, treachery and sheer desperation.

THE search for a permanent solution to the country’s fuel supplies has been a tail of pranks, treachery and sheer desperation.

Report by Bernard Mpofu

But in the end, the eureka moment that many eagerly await seems to be far off. Desperate and in some cases, not so wise decisions have been taken by the government in an attempt to solve the problem.

After foiling a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, government would have hoped that the oil-rich central African nation would retain the favour by boosting local fuel supplies. That was not the case.

Independent estimates show that Zimbabwe imports nearly 6 million barrels of oil annually.

Fast forward to 2007, a little known mystic figure by the name Rotina Mavhunga made newspaper headlines for supposedly coming to the country’s rescue.

Her claim to fame? Conning senior government officials, including intelligence ministers, into believing that diesel could be drawn from rocks at Maningwa Hills near Chinhoyi Caves. So desperate was the government to address the chronic fuel crisis that a primary school drop-out was ostensibly hired to come to the rescue.

Alas, her luck ran out when she was dragged to court and sentenced to 37 months imprisonment for conning the government.

It only took another team of government bureaucrats to investigate what at first sight seemed apparent like a high school prank.

Then ministers of Energy and Power Development, Mike Nyambuya, Science and Technology Olivia Muchena and Amos Midzi of the mining portfolio were dispatched to Chinhoyi leading to a probe which opened the Pandora’s box. Before this embarrassing incident, Zimbabwe had turned to late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, mortgaging vast tracts of arable land in exchange for petroleum.

But again the deal collapsed. As if retreating to fate, government scientists turned to biogas, and before long the term jatropha became viral both inside and outside government.

Zimbabwe has in the past week been hosting the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa in the capital under the theme: “The nexus between Africa’s natural resources, development and security”.

That our intelligence services have been spot on in thwarting external threats to national security is well documented. But a lot leaves to be desired on the economic front. Economic espionage has become big business in the world as competition intensifies in the wake of globalisation.

Presenting a paper at the intelligence conference, Great Zimbabwe Vice-Chancellor Rungano Zvobgo said studies had shown that the future of biofuels in famine-hit Africa continued to hang in the balance, blighting any prospects of reviving the jatropha project locally.

Research shows that like many African economies, Zimbabwe has invested in Jatropha (for biodiesel), sugarcane (for ethanol) and molasses for (ethanol), but not many have enjoyed dividends of such investments.

Biofuel production has been linked to numerous environmental and socio-impacts such as atmospheric pollutant emissions, increased water use, water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, income/employment generation, energy security, food security, human health and social conflicts. Brazil is often cited as the only country in the world where biofuel use has significantly boosted energy security.

“The challenge for the continent is to ensure energy security through joint ventures and partnerships with foreign companies on terms and conditions that guarantee security in the region.

“The development of Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one such cooperation which should be enhanced for the economic development of Africa,” said Zvobgo.

After making a howler of the decade following the Mavhunga drama, a local investor in partnership with South Koreans commissioned a biodiesel production plant to process fuel extracted from the jatropha tree, popularly known as majirimoni by many living in Murehwa.

Barely five years on since President Robert Mugabe cut the ribbon to commission the Mount Hampden plant, nothing much has been reported on the project and no economic blueprint has mentioned any plans to resuscitate the project.

But rewind, the project was widely seen as the means to an end to a fuel crisis which almost paralysed the economy together with other bad economic policies. Said Mugabe at the November 15 2007 Transload biodiesel plant launch: “As a nation, we have once again demonstrated that the ill-fated sanctions against the innocent people of Zimbabwe can never subdue our resilience and inner propulsion to succeed and remain on our feet as a nation.

“Soon, our economy will be paying us back the dividends of the seedlings of progression we are planting across different productive sectors. “Zimbabwe was never there to collapse, is never there to collapse and will never be there to collapse.”

Mugabe said the plant could pump 100 million litres of biodiesel annually at its peak from cotton seed, soya beans, jatropha and sunflower seed. The project was then expected to save the country $80 million annually.

Though the fuel crisis has ended following the introduction of multiple currencies in 2009, the plant has become a white elephant, raising questions on whether the country’s economic espionage had been effective.

Most recently, another effort to ease the country’s dependence on fuel imports came when the $600 million ethanol plant in Chisumbanje was commissioned. Critics say the project would make Billy Rautenbach, Mugabe’s ally, one of the wealthiest men on the land and possibly attaching a security threat tag on him for being a fuel baron.