opinionBy Joseph Banda
Ndola — ZAMBIA spends in excess of US$500 million a year on the importation of crude oil to meet its national demand for fuel needed in running vehicles and industries.
And with the dilapidated machinery at Indeni Oil Refinery, Zambia has had to incur even more costs in efforts to ensure that the country has enough fuel stocks to propel its economic activities.
The Government has for years now struggled to find means of reducing the costs on fuel and also avoid shortages that arise as a result of frequent closures of the only oil refinery plant based in Ndola.
First it was the idea of creating oil reserve tanks that has to date not been a reality before the Government looked at other options.
The focus has from last year shifted to the production of bio-fuels that have proved to be cost-effective in other parts of the world such as Brazil.
The Government, through Energy and Water Development Minister Felix Mutati started by courting Zambia Sugar in enticing them into production of ethanol, which is a critical component of bio-fuel.
And the Mazabuka company has shown commitment and pledged to invest $150 million to expand its sugar cane production in order to produce even more ethanol as a by-product of sugar production.
Further, Mr Mutati has undertaken several tours of commercial farms where he has gone to learn how much Jatropha is being grown and to also find out more knowledge on the plant, which is important to the production of bio-fuel.
It is envisaged that although bio-fuel cannot completely replace fossil fuels, it can help the Government reduce costs on crude importation if significant quantities are produced within the country.
However, the latest minister's tour of Sherrif Estates in Serenje and Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust (GART) on the Great North road in Lusaka reveals that the country needs to be conscious on its path to embrace bio-fuel as a supplement to fossil fuel.
At Sherrif Estates where a farmer is growing Jatropha and producing diesel from sunflower and groundnuts that he later uses to run his vehicles, tractors and other machinery at the farm located 30 kilometres from Serenje boma, he learnt that the Government has to be careful in embracing Jatropha.
Owner of the farm, Roger Sherrif, told the minister that he was currently producing bio-diesel which he used for his fleet of vehicles and other machinery without adjusting them and that it had proved cheaper than buying from filling stations.
The farm is currently producing 2,000 litres of diesel a day and, with the availability of more raw materials, there is capacity to produce even more fuel.
Mr Sherrif led the minister and his delegation to his fields where he has grown Jatropha and proved that although the plant was poisonous to animals, he used his cattle for weeding and they did not eat Jatropha leaves.
He agreed that he was ready to partner with the Government in the production of fuel as long as certain protective measures were put in place to benefit the farmers, producers and finally consumers.
He said the Government should ensure that tax on bio-fuel was as low as possible, especially when it was being sold to consumers so that it could also compete with mineral fuel.
"In Britain, tax on bio-fuel is half that of mineral fuel while no tax is levied on the same fuel used for agricultural purposes," he said.
The farmer said lack of material and engineering skills were also prohibitive in the development of bio-fuel while tax on imported ethanol should also be reduced.
At GART, experts also reminded Mr Mutati that there was need for the Government to fully understand Jatropha and its effects when grown on a large scale.
Head of research and development, Douglas Moono, said experts had keenly followed the excitement on Jatropha and production of bio-fuels, adding that there was need for adequate research on the plant.
Mr Moono said there was need for caution in the way the Government was trying to come up with the production of bio-fuels, especially effects on the environment and the disposal of remains needed to be taken care of.
He said there was also need to regulate the importation of Jatropha plants until research was done to find out their suitability to the Zambian situation.
"As Zambia we need to know the effects of Jatropha remains, especially that on the international level it has been agreed that by 2020, 20 per cent of mineral fuels should be replaced by bio-fuels," he said.
The danger was to allow any one to grow the plant without any control measures that would protect animals and the environment.
Bio-energy can succeed in Zambia if energy crops do not impact on food security but provide opportunities to benefit small-scale farmers who may be engaged in growing Jatropha.
A large scale bio-energy sector can be built upon organising many small-scale farmers through outgrower schemes while energy cropping can be environmentally sustainable.
He added that GART was aiming at reaching out to 120,000 small-scale farmers in Jatropha growing while encouraging the growing of other crops such as cassava and other seasonal crops as a way of ensuring food security.
Mr Mutati, who agreed that although the Government was excited with bio-fuel prospects, said it was wary of many factors and was slowly coming with a policy that would also cater for a legal framework.
He said there was a lot of anxiety in the country about Jatropha but the Government first wanted to strengthen partnerships with various stakeholders so that no stone could be left unturned.
He said all players needed to have enough knowledge on the issue and, as a result, the Government had this year set aside K600 million for research on Jatropha and production of bio-fuels.
"As we remain excited, we should also be mindful of how we are going to dispose off Jatropha residues, protect animals and the environment," he said.
The minister said that Government had also sent a team of experts to India so that they could learn how bio-fuels ended up in vehicles and machinery, especially that Jatropha was a labour-intensive plant.
He added that bio-fuel was supposed to cushion fuel imports and the Government's goal was to replace mineral fuel initially by 10 per cent and later 20 per cent.
He, however, said that there were several other challenges such as ensuring peasant farmers had enough food since Jatropha took three years to be harvested although the plant could live for over 35 years.
He said the Government would definitely come up with a policy on the dos and don'ts and also come up with a proper taxation regime to make bio-fuel as cheap as possible.
He said currently, it cost $1.00 to produce a litre of bio-diesel and, with low taxes and having a decentralised production and selling system, the fuel would be affordable to many people.
The Government has also put up an inter-ministerial committee that is currently discussing possible challenges and effects to the country once bio-fuels are fully embraced in the next three years.
The land is plenty and water is available for Zambia to grow Jatropha and, subsequently, produce bio-fuel that could no doubt help the country save on the importation of crude oil which is ever costing the country more resources.
However, there is need for caution in the manner the country is trying to come up with an alternative source of fuel so that there are no devastating effects to cost the country even more.