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.

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.

9 Comments

  1. Building on sand will lead to a collapse of any well intentioned project.

    The sun lies above.

    Zimbabwe needs to move now on a policy for dentralised Solar power generation.

    This will cut down our total net energy import .

    Within 3 years Europe will have significant amounts of electric vehicles moving.

    EMBRACE THE FUTURE …dont hide from it.

    1. I agree fully, we have been chasing expensive failures, yet we have in abundance an energy resource that we hardly tap into: solar energy. For instance, this biodiesel plant, at 100m litres/annum capacity, would require at least 200 000 hectares of land dedicated just to the jatropha crop (assuming average yields). Can we afford that? Now we hear the Chisumbanje plant, if it were operational, may not even have had enough sugar cane because of a drastic drop in production due to low rainfall. This project is now a $600m white elephant in limbo! It’s been one disastrous project after another!

    2. Unless solar becomes state run there is no chance of it being a viable project due to its capital intensive nature and high maintenance and other macro factors that would jeopardize the project.

  2. Are that daft as to fail to find a solution. Zim has got a lot of coal I think if we follow the SA way of extracting oil from this mineral we will go a long to solve this problem. Some of the things you reminded us shows the calibre of leadership we have-mediocre.

    Its all about leadership and everything comes into place. It is unfathomable that our country now imports maize from Zambia and almost all groceries from SA. Our country is bedeviled by a myriad of problems. Everything its the politics stupid.

    Lord have mercy.

  3. The majority of Zimbabweans who claim to be educated and learned are theorists,very few can put what they have learnt in colleges into practice!

    1. My thoughts exactly. Implementation ma1. Zvakangooma zvazvo.

  4. nation builders

    We have hydroelectric at kariba, vic falls and mupata gorge. We have gas in lupane/hwange. We have geothermal [untapped]. We have the potential for solar heating sodium chloride and generating power 24hrs a day. We have oil and chemicals from our vast coal resources. We have oil in zimbabwe [sorry my lips are sealed because no way am I gonna give away 51% of a business I might start to some lazy, drunkard, clubbing, luxury addict, small house concubine proliferating guy whose only claim to deserving is political connections. We have mini hydro. We have run of the river, We have biogas. We have solar to hydrogen, we have loads of resources that are undeveloped. Our vast resources of electric power when developed will coincide with hydrogen/electric and electric vehicle technology that is being developed right now. We are a priviledged, blessed country but whites from europe and the usa who have the technology are not going to hep us when they have to give up 51% to some morally bankrupt person who has political connections.

  5. Nation builders you seem to be enlightened but you are missing the point,let us start in our own small way them improve from there!How many graduates are being capped every year and what happens thereafter? Are we going to school to be employees or employers?

  6. @ Sekuru Gudo. nation builder is very right. We have everything we need in Zimbabwe but current leadership and policies are not conducive for commercialization of our resources. Unfortunately some of these projects can not be started on a small scale but need large investments. There are no investors rushing here government is broke and banks are not giving out long term loans. The people with the neccesary skills, know how and information are currently mumb and quiet waiting for a better dispensation. For example government scientists have tried destructive distillation of coal but encountered the problem of gumming which they didn’t know how to solve. Some are still trying. Yet there is a very simple solution to it. As for oil not too long ago there was a ‘natural’ fire in a certain area in Zimbabwe. The gases that fueled that fire are indicative of the prevalence of oil in that particular region. But those in the know aren’t rushing to bring the info to light just like how those who knew about diamonds in Chiadzwa tried keeping it a secret.

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