The New Times (Kigali)

27 February 2013

Rwanda: Take the Bio-Fuel Technology to the Villages

The bio-fuel project has been ongoing for some time now with the promise to produce cheap fuel and ease the cost of oil importation, as well as create some much needed jobs.

It is only fitting that Rwanda should exploit existing technology to make its own fuel, as her sister member states in the East African Community-Uganda and Kenya now boast some oil, and Tanzania some gas deposits.

The project, however, seems to be taking long to kick off. It has been reported that one of the main hitches in the delivery of its promise is investors, who are said to still be putting together the requisite funds (US$250m) for the project. Local investors are still being wooed to buy-in on its potential.

As far as one can tell, everything has for all this time been set to roll. The policies are in place and possible pitfalls that might derail the project have been anticipated.

For instance, careful plans have been laid out to ensure education and skills development of farmers to avoid the risk of large scale growing of jatropha curcas plant taking the place of food crops, thus jeopardizing food security.

Bio-diesel can be processed from the seeds of the jatropha and moringa trees, including castor and soy and palm oils. The bio-fuel currently being produced in Rwanda is largely from palm oil, mainly imported from Democratic Republic Congo.

In the initial projections it had been envisaged that, in its fullness, the project would annually produce in between 36 and over 100 million litres, depending on who you ask; which would take care of substantial fuel needs of the country, currently importing over 200 million litres of oil per annum.

But, today, under the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (IRST) which runs the bio-fuel project, only 2,000 litres are produced per day, coming to about 730,000 litres per year.

The slow take off has left many Rwandans feeling impatient, especially when you consider the bio-diesel fetches RWF 890 per litre against the RWF 1,000 for the normal fuel.

But while there have been assurances that things are being worked out behind the scenes to ensure that the project comes through, one would also have liked to hear about plans in place to support small-scale bio-fuels projects.

Mali offers an example. Small scale jatropha processing mills can be seen in hundreds of villages in Mali providing fuel for cooking stoves, lamps and generators.

As long as locals can remember jatropha has been grown as a sort of living fence to keep wildlife from crops, and sometimes as a source of handmade soap.

Now they use the bio-fuel which is cheaper than the normal oil. Additionally, the solid "press cake" left over after the oil is squeezed out of the seeds has value, either as animal feed or organic fertilizer.

While the more elaborate plans of national bio-fuel production continue to be pursued, the thought of what the bio-fuel technology could mean to the villages should be considered.

As of April last year IRST was working with some "122 small oilseed-producing cooperatives, numbering 12,185 members."

The community members should be empowered with the technology to bring closer to them the benefits of bio-fuel, as the Mali example illustrates.

At the back of the mind should be the fact that biomass is by far the largest source of energy in Rwanda, with firewood and wood for charcoal making up around 80 per cent of the total, and agricultural residues and peat another six per cent, according to available figures.

The implications of using the more environment friendly bio-fuel are obvious, though somebody should do a study on what it would take to bring the technology to the grassroots. Perhaps the NGOs could give a hand.

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