Dancing the bio-fuel samba

By Tesfu Telahoun

To describe Ethiopia as a large country is to understate the sheer size of this truly vast nation of nations. Whether from the vantage of a bird’s eye view or while in a drive out of Addis Ababa, the scale of this nation never ceases to amaze the visitors as well as seasoned natives. 

It is realizably quoted that Ethiopia occupies a total area of 111.5 millions of hectares. About 67 percent is considered to be arable land. To put this in perspective, the total arable land available to Ethiopia exceeds the total land area of Eritrea and Djibouti combined.

A very small portion of this vast land, less than 17 percent is currently being utilized. There is more than ample surplus land left for increased food crop cultivation as well as for nearly unlimited hectares for plantations with bio-fuel, ethanol and other clean fuel extraction.

The emergence of bio-fuel as a serious alternative to diminishing pools of fossil fuels has sparked a huge furor in the community of development modelists.

The main issues cited (to the determent of bio-fuel expansion) are in order of relative importance:
–    Competing with crop land
–    Food crops input for bio-fuel extraction
–    Bio-fuel plant impact on environment

These (and others) are valid concerns, especially the controversial and in my view insensitive use of edible plants and cereals so that some fat cat can drive his hummer less expensively while also soothing a skewed consequence that he is doing his bit for the environment…

It is very well researched conviction that the development of bio-fuels for industrial scale production and use cannot, in and of itself, solve global energy needs. Meanwhile, countries with vast land are advised to their potential for the development of bio-fuel at industrial level without jeopardizing their food security.

Nations such as Ethiopia for which bio-fuels are the natural choice – reaping the nation so endowed with direct benefits and even richer  offsets as the economy digests the easing of the burdensome annual fossil fuel import bill.

According to figures released by the Ethiopian Petroleum Enterprise, the nation paid out 1.246 billion US dollars to import around 1.93 million metric tons of fuel products in 2008/09 fiscal year. A huge chunk about 1.16 million metric tons, is gas oil (diesel), a mixture which can be quite easily replaced with cheaper and greener bio-fuels and other eco-friendly propellants.

Ethiopia would do well to emulate the experience of Brazil – another nation well endowed with land resources. The South American giant pioneered the extensive development of ethanol and gasoline blends as far back as the early 1960’s.

The first beneficiaries – lab rats of the new organic fuels were the public transport systems of Brazil’s sprawling megacities.

The program was gradually rolled out to the larger public and soon, the nation was producing not only clean fuels, but also the specially adapted engines and vehicles. Currently over 60 percent of Brazilian road transport fuel requirements are met by biodiesel, ethanol and ethanol- benzene blends. Food for thought when one notes that 25 million vehicles ply Brazil’s 1,752,000 kilometer road network.

If organic fuel can meet such a high percentage of Brazil’s requirements as shown above, Ethiopia with fewer than 200,000 vehicles, can easily take advantage of at least halving its annual fuel import bill of 1.25 billion US dollars.

Ethiopia’s conducive land and climatic conditions, a driven government and astute investment are perfect ingredients to make the nation somewhat self-sufficient as far as it concerns diesel (gasoil) fuel requirements within five years.

It is to be noted and not with too much enthusiasm that reports indicate semi-processed bio-fuel plant extract is being exported. Hopefully this activity will evolve into a more productive and meaningful endeavor.

Over a dozen bio-fuel crop plantations and related investment ventures have been launched during the last several years and most of these projects must now be entering their productive phases.

The nation expects results and every local media, which has been reporting about these investments, should see to it that the public is well updated about the status of these mega projects. The nation cannot afford to keep missing opportunities…many of them which are already within our reach.

Large scale bio-fuels production and subsequent application for transportation and other energy requirements holds multiple promises:
–    Reducing dependency on fossil fuel imports
–    To free and spur on Ethiopia’s economy by easing hard currency pressures
–    Conservation and environmental sustainability amid unrestrained growth and prosperity