Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The biodiesel plant that may never be completed

Posted by CM on August 12, 2007

As Zimbabwe creeps towards 10 years in crisis mode, there are countless ways in which it is losing out on many innovations that lesser equipped countries are enthusiastically taking advantage of.

One of those is the global frenzy over the potential of the hardy, well-adapted-to-Africa shrub jatropha to produce biodiesel. One would have thought that a country that has grappled with a severe fuel problem since about 2000 would work extra hard to explore ways of producing industrial quantities of jatropha biofuel.

As a recent story in The Herald illustrates, the intention may be there, but the country is in too much of an economic and leadership mess to be able to do so. In the style of The Herald, the heading, “Construction of biodiesel plant gathers momentum,” promises a lot but is not backed up by the facts of the story.

Construction…is progressing well, officials have said, with the biodiesel plant “expected to produce at least 300,000 litres of fuel per day using jatropha seeds.”

That would be a good start.

Finealt Engineering, a Government-owned company, is carrying out the project, which started in May 2006. Production manager Mr. Clement Shoriwa said a variety of civil works, including water reticulation, and electricity installation, were being carried out. “Our intention was to complete the project in July but have not been able to do so due to financial constraints,” he said. So far, he said, roads at the plant were now ready for compacting and tarring. Construction of buildings would start once the civil works had been completed.

Oh, oh, trouble! We all know the performance record of “government-owned companies” in Zimbabwe : largely disastrous. A project that should have been completed last month, a year after it started, has so far only managed to get the roads ready for compacting! By what definition could this qualify as “progressing well?”

And “Finealt” Engineering? Who thought of this name? The Zimbabwean capacity to conjur up silly “English-sounding” names is depressing.

Mr. Shoriwa said the budget at the inception of the project in 2005 was $3 trillion, but had since ballooned, though he could not give the figure required now.

He could not “give the figure now” because with the country’s levels of inflation it is impossible to do a project costing, particularly in local currency! It is hard enough to do a civil or building project successfully in an environment in which prices change by more than double digit percentages every day or week. But once there has been the inevitable first delay for any number of reasons-problems with fuel, cement, whatever-then for the contractor it is hard to almost impossible to get back on line and finish the project at all, let alone on time or profitably.

It is not at all difficult to understand why this is turning out to be another project that is unlikely to be completed any time soon : the economics of doing any such project in Zimbabwe work against you every single second. Perhaps the only way to complete ambitious projects like this is if the funding for all materials were made available in hard currency and all those materials were warehoused on site before any work begun as a hedge against constantly rising prices. But even then, pilferage would be a major issue in the current desperate economic and social environment and there would still be delays because workers would struggle to get to and from work, absenteeism would be high, productivity would be low because the workers have so many things to worry about including hunger and high rates of stress and illness, etc.

The factory, to occupy 72 hectares, would accommodate an oil processing plant, seed storage plant, cake processing plant, oil storage tanks, diesel and methanol storage tanks. The company is currently producing between 200 and 250 litres of biodiesel per day for own consumption and for research purposes. “We will go commercial once the factory has been completed,” said Mr. Shoriwa. Apart from producing diesel, the company also produces by-products from jatropha such as soap, glycerine and fertilizer.

Without having managed to even tar the roads of the complex, it is obviously going to be a long time before the planned fancy processing equipment can be bought! If there really is any biodiesel production going on, it is likely to be with hand-operated presses, which may account for the fact that the company “employs about 300 workers, excluding casual workers.” But even then, what on earth is this company doing with a workforce that large already? On that basis of inefficiency alone it is doomed to fail, even if it is “socialistically providing employment.” We have been this way before countless times, with parastatals all over the economy which do very little yet have large work forces they struggle to pay.

It would not be hard for some industrious small scale businessperson to press 250 litres of jatropha oil from seed per day and make various by-products with a fraction of this government company’s workforce.

“It is a viable project and Zimbabwe is lagging behind whereas other countries are now at advanced stages of producing biodiesel,” Mr. Shoriwa said. He cited countries such as Brazil, China, Kenya, Germany and Malawi as leading in the production of biodiesel.

Shoriwa ends with the point I began with : Zimbabwe is missing out on so many opportunities it should rightfully be at the forefront of benefiting from because of its many infrastructural and many other advantages.

Multiply this one example of a project supposedly “progressing well” several-fold all over the country, and one gets a depressing idea of some of the ways Zimbabwe is working so hard to sabotage its own future.

Chido Makunike

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