Govt loses interest in bio-diesel project

The government has lost interest in the country’s bio-fuel project that used to produce about 2,000 litres of fuel before it stopped production in 2012, officials at the country’s industrial research agency have said.
The defunct bio-diesel plant at Mulindi. The project that was run by the former IRST might not resume production, at least as far as mass production is concerned. (Stephen Nuwagira)
The defunct bio-diesel plant at Mulindi. The project that was run by the former IRST might not resume production, at least as far as mass production is concerned. (Stephen Nuwagira)

The government has lost interest in the country’s bio-fuel project that used to produce about 2,000 litres of fuel before it stopped production in 2012, officials at the country’s industrial research agency have said.

The bio-diesel project was initiated by the government in 2007 at the then Scientific and Technological Research Institute (now NIRDA) at Mulindi in Gasabo District as one of the ways to reduce the country’s import bill. 

However, the project that was working on pilot basis ceased operations in 2012 following challenges with procurement legalities for some of the main catalysts required to produce bio-diesel. At the time, the plant had the capacity to produce 2,000 litres of bio-diesel per day, and used to supply fuel to 50 vehicles daily. A litre of bio-diesel was at Rwf890 compared to Rwf1,000 of fossil diesel at the time. The project was at one time touted as a huge break-through for Rwanda, especially in its push for green growth. However, National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA) now says the bio-diesel project is no longer viable, citing the absence of raw material locally, among other challenges, which officials say makes it wasteful to continue with the project.

“In the past couple of months we have been assessing the bio-diesel project at IRST and found that using palm oil import from Bukavu in the DR Congo it is not sustainable any more. Besides, fossil diesel is now cheaper, so it would not make any business sense for NIRDA to start making bio-diesel at, say Rwf800 when fossil oil is now at Rwf840,” Dr Joseph Mungarulire points out. A litre of diesel is at Rwf840 presently. He says, however, that if raw materials were sourced locally, NIRDA would then look at skills development, arguing that they can afford to work at a loss but benefit from skills transfer in such a case.

“As it is now, what happens if the demand for palm oil goes up and we can’t afford? Besides, a study we have done in Burera, Rugarama and other places where jatropha is grown has shown that jatropha is not adapted to Rwanda. There is only a small strip where it does well in the Rugarama area towards Burundi,” he explains.

It was also found that the jatropha seeds do not have the quantities of seeds that are required to produce quality bio-diesel oil, he adds. “Another problem is that we don’t have enough land in Rwanda for food crops, so it is hard to convince farmers to grow jatropha,” he says.

He says the government is considering two options as far as the bio-diesel project is concerned: use the plant to make limited amount of bio-diesel for small market, and preserving it as a research centre.

“We can produce small quantities to run small machines, like lawn mowers, but telling people you are going for mass production is impossible at the moment,” he notes.

He says the other option is to close shop as the Ministry of Trade and Industry had all along advised since mass production of bio-diesel is also not favoured by the numbers (returns on investment). “We can always maintain it as a research centre to teach people.” Mungarulire, however, says they are yet to make a final decision on the fate of the project. He revealed that NIRDA is discussing with Horizon Sopyrwa to see if they can use the waste Sopyrwa produces which contains some fatty acids which can be used at the biodiesel plant. “If we test the waste and find it contains the right fatty acid, that’s something we can consider…because it would replace palm oil imports from Bukavu…Otherwise, as the mathematics stands now, palm oil or jatropha are not the way to go,” he notes.

It is estimated that Rwanda imports over 160 million litres of diesel per annum worth $300 million.

A sustainable bio-diesel policy developed by IRST in 2008 had showed that Rwanda could have replaced 20 per cent of its fossil diesel imports by 2015 if it was implemented then. This could have increased to 50 per cent in 2020.

The country could have earned Rwf806.7m in 2012, Rwf255m in 2016, which could increase to Rwf3 billion, hitting Rwf10.6b in 2025. According to the plan, if 204.8 million jatropha trees were planted on 128,000 hectares, Rwanda could produce the required bio-diesel to fuel its economy and replace its fossil diesel imports. Planting about 51 million palm trees on 32,000 hectares could also achieve the same result.

stephen.nuwagira@newtimes.co.rw

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