The government has reassured the public that efforts to produce bio-diesel on large-scale for commercial use are still on course.
Finance Minister Amb. Claver Gatete said the government has not neglected the bio-fuel project, but was still studying the amount of investment needed to start fullscale commercial bio-diesel production.
Bio-diesel is produced from oil extracted from oil-producing seeds like palm tree, moringa, neem and jatropha seeds. The government initiated the project in 2007 that would see bio-fuel substitute fossil fuels that are often susceptible to price volatilities.
Gatete was responding to a question from this writer about the progress of the project that could save the country over $300m (about Rwf209.4b) annually in diesel imports during the post-budget press briefing on Friday.
He said the pilot phase of the project was a success; "what remains was to build on the raw material supply aspect by acquiring enough land required to plant crops like jatropha, neem and palm trees, whose seeds are used to produce bio-fuels".
He said the government needed time to execute the project properly in order to have it as a sustainable backup to fossil fuels.
However, sector experts say we could be in for a long wait, noting that the main problem was the delay to operationalise the necessary laws and underfunding.
Though the law to transform the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (IRST) into the National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA) was published in the official gazette on July 29, 2013, its organisational structure was published in the official gazette last month. However, the director general and staff for the agency are yet to be appointed.
The bio-diesel policy that provides for promotion of bio-energy industries, support for farmers and business engaged in green energy development, as well as tax incentives for cars and industries that use bio-fuel is also still gathering dust.
The policy was submitted to the Government in the 2009/10 financial year.
"For NIRDA to work it requires a Prime Minister's Order approving job profiles of staff, which has been done. However, the board and director general of the new institution have not yet been appointed. This means that nothing can be done at the moment," Dr Jean Baptiste Nduwayezu, the outgoing IRST director general, told this newspaper yesterday.
He also said he has written to the President about the stalemate in operationalising the bio-diesel policy, "but I am still waiting for his response". Nduwayezu said the delay was blocking thousands of jobs along the bio-fuel value chain, and frustrating the country's growth blueprint, the second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS II) objectives.
"Farmers started calling us to go buy jatropha seeds early last year, but since we weren't operating we asked them to sell to other people."
He added that without a policy it will be very hard for NIRDA to attract investors or motivate farmers and other stakeholders.
"We need government and community support to make Rwanda self-reliant. Science has already proved that we can satisfy our fuel (diesel) needs if the bio-fuel project gets the necessary support.
"Besides, this is the green economy government is promoting. Bio-fuel supports the environment and food security through inter cropping," Nduwayezu said.
He added farmers were ready to support the project, noting that they have so far planted over five million jatropha trees, especially in the Southern Province.
Already, farmers in Kirehe, Karongi, Nyamagabe, Nyaruguru and Kayonza districts, have planted over five million jatropha trees. Farmers under KODI Co-operative in Jabana, Gasabo District have so far planted 218,000 jatropha trees. Over 20 hectares of land around Lake Ruhondo have also been planted with 34,000 jatropha trees in an effort to conserve the lake environment and "also generate revenue from the multipurpose oil-producing trees"
According to an earlier roadmap drawn by IRST, Rwanda was expected to become a net producer of bio-diesel by 2025, replacing almost all its fossil diesel imports with bio-fuels, saving the country $300m in fossil diesel imports.
Rwanda imports over 160 million litres of diesel per annum worth $300m. A litre of bio-diesel cost Rwf890 in 2012 compared to Rwf1,000 (Rwf1,010 presently) of fossil diesel.
The pilot project that was run by IRST had the capacity to produce 2,000 litres of bio-diesel per day.
Though IRST had plans to buy a high-capacity plant that could produce 48,000 litres of bio-diesel daily, this was never to be because of the above and other challenges.
Despite all these challenges, experts are optimistic about the project.
Théoneste Ishimwe, a senior research technician and the IRST Kigali station manager, said NIRDA will carry out more public sensitisation campaigns to encourage farmers to grow crops required for bio-diesel production.