A revolutionary new development project in Tanzania is set to make biofuel from nuts – a first for Africa. It'll also be the first time in the world that environmentally friendly fuel is manufactured using the oil from the fruit of the Croton tree, a plant indigenous to East Africa. The goal of the initiative is to replace up to 10 percent of Tanzania's oil requirements by 2018, through the production and sale of cheaper vegetable oil as bio-diesel. It will also provide a new cash crop to smallholder farmers.
In other parts of the world, biofuel is made using oil from coconuts and soybeans. Now, Tanzania is to manufacture it using nuts from the Croton tree - a "wonderful" and "amazing" plant, according to Christine Adamow, the woman at the helm of a company called Africa Biofuel and Emission Reduction, based in Dar es Salaam.
Her groundbreaking project will function in Tanzania's northwestern Kagera region, where the Croton tree grows prodigiously.
"Currently, the tree is not used for anything other than beauty. It has a very pretty canopy. Often, you'll see these trees planted as decorations at small farms and homes," Adamow explains.
But beyond the Croton's aesthetic qualities, it can also provide other benefits for thousands of Tanzanians. Adamow tells VOA, "The tree produces a nut, and this nut has three seeds inside the husk. The seeds contain 27 percent oil by weight. We've been analyzing the tree and the nuts for the past seven years. Our analysis tells us that this oil, as a source of straight vegetable oil, provides a clean source of biofuel for diesel generators and diesel motors."
Many people in Tanzania don't have electricity. Some rely on generators for power, and most on fire for their heating, cooking and other requirements. Few residents can afford the diesel required to power engines. Currently, fossil diesel in western Tanzania costs almost US $11 per gallon. But Adamow says her biofuel would retail at "about 60 percent of prices at the pump." At the moment, this translates to about six and a half US dollars.
According to research done by Adamow's firm, this reduction in the price of fuel would make it affordable to tens of thousands of Tanzanian families.
"Astonishing" scientists reveal Croton's mysteries
The entrepreneur makes a point of stressing that Croton nuts are non-edible and that her company doesn't advocate growing food crops for biofuel production.
"We've seen a worldwide increase in the maize price, for example, as a result of shortages because farmers in places like the US have started to grow the crop specifically for the purposes of making ethanol. We don't want any repeats of this," she maintains. "We want to help, not harm, poor people."
Adamow says it took seven years of painstaking research to unlock the secret of the Croton tree.
"I work with an astonishing group of international scientists and economists, and these people have been resident in East Africa for almost eight years. The main purpose and driver among this group of people has been to somehow find a way to bring an affordable source of clean fuel to very rural parts of East Africa. In so doing, these scientists had some requirements. Clearly it was paramount that none of the feedstock that they would choose to grow would compete with any food source."
The experts then studied several plants indigenous to East Africa and investigated their potential as biofuel sources.
Adamow says, "In doing the field studies, they found this tree first in Kenya and determined that because the seeds are non-edible, the nuts go unused. So it was natural for these scientists to evaluate the Croton nuts. And they found that they were very oily, and that the oil was great to be used in generators."
She adds that the scientists then did more research on the Croton and "where potentially we might be able to grow it under very regimented conditions in East Africa's agricultural sector."
They settled on Tanzania's Kagera area, near Lake Victoria, after also finding the Croton tree there in great numbers.
"The exciting thing about the tree also is that it doesn't seem to have a lot of irrigation requirements. In studying the 50-year water patterns and rain patterns in the regions where the tree grows, there have been several years of significant drought. Yet the tree has still done exceptionally well, because it has a very deep rooting system (that enables it to draw moisture from deep underground)," Adamow comments.
She explains that farmers will plant Croton trees between their traditional food crops.
"The other great part about the tree is that because it has such an open canopy it allows us and regional farmers to continue growing their food stocks alongside this tree (because the crops still receive adequate sunlight). Intercropping is a very, very important part of our business model."
Adamow describes Kagera as "extremely underdeveloped."
"The area that we've targeted as the core plantation is an….underutilized landmass. It's about 20,000 hectares, that had been maybe two decades ago used as a coffee plantation. That land lies unproductive at the moment," she says. "It is reasonable that since the tree grows very close to that region, and the land is not currently been used for anything, it would be a great place to begin the planting of millions of these trees."
Refinery to be built?
Adamow says when the Croton nuts are ripe they fall to the ground.
"We'll pick them up and put them through a manual crusher. It doesn't require any fuel or electricity. It's equivalent to a grinder, if you will. That separates the husks from the seeds. Once we've done this, we take the seeds and we put them through a manual press – very much like you would make any type of nut butter. You would just add a lot of pressure manually to a very large tank of these seeds. The oil (is) pressed out of those seeds," she explains.
"The remaining portion of the seeds doesn't have any oil in it and is called the 'press cake'… that we believe could be the basis for fertilizer…. and in some cases might even be converted into another material that might be used in the cogeneration of electricity."
Adamow says the oil can be used "straight, without any refining" in most diesel engines and diesel generators, but that her company might at some stage be "forced…to take the oil through a refinery process" in order for the fuel to be compatible with more advanced engines.
"We may need to alter the composition of that straight vegetable oil to create a bio-diesel fuel able to be used in highly sophisticated engines," she says. "If we have to do that, then a refinery will be built in the region, and a classic bio-diesel refining processor will be developed."
But Adamow is hoping to avoid this, as such a development requires "some pretty sophisticated chemistry" and she doesn't want anything to hinder the project and its benefits for the people of Kagera.
Local farmers will be company owners
Adamow maintains that her initiative will generate income for local inhabitants in three ways.
"First, local farmers will be working with us to grow the tree, so we'll be purchasing nuts from them. In addition, these same farmers will provide us with a seasonal labor force for harvesting our nuts on the core plantation. And third - which I think is most exciting and important - these same employees, who are local farmers and residents of rural Tanzania, will be owners in this company, and (will) share in stocks and equity opportunities."
She says her enterprise will dedicate itself to bringing "cash flow," affordable fuel and fair labor practices to the Kagera region, but will also consider it a priority to start turning profits as soon as possible.
"Without profit, all of those people working in the company and those who have stock ownership in the company would reap no value," she states. "When we generate profit, the profit gets plied back to those people…and to the region where the company is located."
Another objective, Adamow emphasizes, is "to get the kids back into school, which currently is very difficult to do, because there is no electricity in that region. And with the usage of affordable bio-diesel fuel, we can even spawn new educational opportunities for children."