Derelict biodiesel plant: Zimbabwe's incredibly, needlessly wasted asset

Jul 25, 2011

Zimbabwe's efforts to set up a biodiesel plant during the worst of its foreign currency and fuel problems was a good idea at the wrong time. The pressures that led to the setting up of the plant may have become less urgent, but that is no excuse for allowing the plant to just rot away.

Last month The Standard had an article about the demise of the biodiesel plant, commented on in a previous post. Now the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporaton website also has its own brief story about the plant:

...the plant is in a sorry state due to non-production...was jointly established by the South Korean government and their Zimbabwean counterparts through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to process oil from cotton seed, jatropha, sunflower and soya beans in order to produce bio-diesel.

Transload Private Limited Managing Director, Mr Douglas Musiiwa said the plant only processed about 800. 000 litres of bio-diesel in 2008 before shutting down in December 2009 due to financial constraints.

“The company was faced with serious working capital constraints after the transition to multi currency system. We had a lot of money in terms of Zim dollars but when we changed to US dollars, we had no more money...  we went back to the RBZ but they had no money as well,” he said.  

Under the inclusive government, the RBZ, which has 50 % shareholding in the bio-diesel plant can no longer inject funds into Transload to purchase raw materials as it was forced to drop its quasi fiscal activities.

The move literally killed the country’s dream of producing 36 million litres of bio-diesel per year which could be blended with fuels derived from petroleum to produce cleaner energy, which countries the world over are advocating for.

The steel structures of the bio-diesel plant are already beginning to rust raising the question, can Zimbabwe afford to let such a multi-million dollar investment go down the drain?

Excellent question from the ZBC! This is an issue that sorely needs attention.

The world may still be struggling with how best to sustainably and profitably grow biodiesel crops, and they remain controversial, but they are not going away.

Many of the African countries to which investors have been flocking for bioethanol/biodiesel (Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal to name a few) are to grow the feedstock crops, with the processing to be done elsewhere.  

Zimbabwe made a fundamental error at the start by setting up the processing plant long before there were sustainable sources of jatropha or any other feed crop. But with the plant already in place, a jatropha seed-supply sector could now be gradually developed. Zimbabwe's cotton and tobacco sectors are leading the country's agricultural recovery, showing that when there is a market, supply need not be the problem.  

With the chronic fuel shortages of previous years now largely a distant memory, the interest in alternative fuels in Zimbabwe has waned, but that is short-termism. It is pretty much a given that every now and then there will be a fuel crisis for one reason or another.

Even merely for research and development purposes, Zimbabwe needs to find a way to keep this ahead-of-the curve plant going.


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