Dar Es Salaam — Millions of dollars being used now for the importation of petroleum products could be saved, thanks to an ambitious three-year pilot project on the use of cassava to produce energy sufficient enough to drive machines.
The project is run by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH).
Tanzania has spent US$1.1billion on oil imports in a period of one year starting July 2005 to about the same time this year, a situation the central bank is not comfortable with.
According to Mr. Matheo Raphael, the director COSTECH Centre for the Development and Transfer of Technology, the project will add value to cassava from being just a traditionally crucial crop for food security to industrial use and even export.
"Cassava production may be oriented for industrial use and that will push its production and value as well as help fight poverty," Raphael said.
He said currently many farmers hesitate to cultivate more cassava as the important crop for food security. The centre wants to extract ethanol from cassava which is easy to cultivate and resistant to drought.
Raphael said the development of cassava into bio-fuel was crucial at this time when oil prices are souring and foreign reserves dwindling.
"The spotlight is turning to ethanol made from fermented cassava starch, which is a promising resource."'Similar to other types of ethanol obtained from agricultural products, it can be used to substitute 25% of petrol in vehicles with standard engines, and up to 50 for diesel engines especially agricultural machines.
"That means the country would import less fuel," Raphael said.
He said, however, that the project needs a lot of support from politicians. We will first run a pilot project in the coastal and central regions to convince politicians that it is viable."
The expert, however, warns that the product must be vigilantly guarded because the same chemistry used in production of bio-fuel ethanol is applied in the preparation of illicit spirits.
Tanzania is one of the largest cassava producers in Africa.
About 700,000 hectares of land are under cultivation with total production of about 1.8million tonnes of cassava. Cassava producing regions are Mtwara, Mara and Ruvuma.
A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister, Mr. Edward Lowassa said the government is set to sign agreements with Thailand and Vietnam in fields that cover biotechnology among other things.
Lowassa said President Kikwete was to sign the agreements during an international conference in Cuba last week.
The Premier said there was a consensus about inviting businessmen from Thailand and Vietnam to invest in production of petrol and diesel from cassava, sugarcanes and jatropha.