Malawi moves to scale-up jatropha-based biodiesel industry

6th June 2008 By: Marcel Chimwala - Creamer Media Correspondent

The Malawi government is facilitating the implementation of a number of private-sector-driven projects to set up biodiesel production plants in the country as part of a multimillion-dollar programme meant to ensure that the country diversifies from its overdependence on fossil fuels as a source of energy.

The director of energy at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Charles Kafumba, says progress made far on a number of projects indicates that Malawi should start producing biodiesel in 2009.

"The biodiesel programme is based on an energy plantation called jatropha, which takes about a year to start producing fruits. Under the programme, a number of jatropha plantations have been set up in a number of areas. We should expect fuel production from the plants to start next year," says Kafumba.

He adds that government is prioritising production of biofuels from jatropha because the plant is rated more highly than maize and rice as far as oil production is concerned.

Jatropha yields over 2 000 bbl of oil from each square mile planted a year, which is greater than maize's 200 bbl and rice's 1 000 bbl.

After oil product, the residue can be processed into biomass to power electricity.

The plant, which is resistant to drought and pests, is also known for increasing soil fertility, soil making it suitable for growing food crops in subsequent years, says Kafumba.

He adds that the companies that are at an advanced stage in the process to start production of biodiesel from jatropha include a consortium comprising Netherlands-based TNT Group and some African investors, which is reportedly preparing to set up a $12-million biodisel production plant in the capital, Lilongwe.

Kafumba says the adoption of biofuels as a major source of energy will assist the impoverished African nation to avert the impact of rising global oil prices.

Malawi's Department of Science and Technology, in liaison with the government-owned Lilongwe Technical College, is experimenting on the use of cane ethanol to drive vehicles in place of petrol.

The first phase of the experiments, the final results of which are expected in mid-2009, used an old Mitsubishi Pajero that was modified to run on 100% ethanol. The Pajero underwent two tests in which it was ethanol-driven for a total distance of 2 110 km at an average speed of 110 km/h.

"The results proved that the Pajero can be driven using 100% ethanol," says Department of Science and Technology director Henry Mbeza.

The project team is currently working on the second phase of the experiments, which involves testing a flexi-fuel vehicle that has been imported from Brazil by Ethanol Company of Malawi (Ethco), which is privately owned.

Ethco, which is a major producer and exporter of cane ethanol in Malawi, also supplies the ethanol to the project.
The Brazilian-made Ford is designed to run on 100% ethanol or 100% petrol or any mixture of ethanol and petrol in a single tank.

Mbeza says that, in the second phase, the research team will collecting data on vehicle performance when using two of the fuels separately or in different proportions.

Malawi already blends its petrol with 10% ethanol at its refineries and hopes that the results of the experiments will allow it to use more of the locally produced cane ethanol, a significant proportion of which is exported.

Malawi, which is among the major sugar producers in the region, has two ethanol producing plants owned by Ethco and Press Cane, with a combined capacity of 18-million litres a year.

Brazil has offered to provide technical assistance to Malawi and other developing nations in their quest to promote the use of biofuels as an alternative source of energy.

"It is interesting that Brazil is a role model for countries like Malawi. In Brazil, we have reached the extent whereby filling stations have three pumps – for petrol, diesel and ethanol," says Brazil's ambassador-designate to Malawi, Raul Taunay, who attended the launching ceremony of the second phase of the experiments.