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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Nchelenge! 2nd Edition

Turn outs that this story which brought much excitement does have some sort of legs to it. Unfortunately, the $80m investment by Biomax now reads as K80m. I am still pinning my hopes on it being $80m, I fail to see how a bio-fuel project of the size indicated can run on £10,000!

29 comments:

  1. Cho,

    I have been attempting to solve the mystery of the 80 million somethings, be they kwacha or dollars or rand or whatever, but it is not proving simple! The choice of the name Biomax is especially frustrating, as the dynamically pro-active superlativeness of it is apparently capable of selling anything from Indian fertilizer, to Russian beauty products, to thermoplastic starch resin for injection molding and everything in between.

    One suspect was BioMax Biodiesel a brand name of Smorgon Fuels of Australia, part of the Victor Smorgon Group. However there is no indication that they have any African projects.

    Another dead end was BioMaxx Systems Inc of Canada, a biotechnology and development consulting company with several international projects under their belt, but no indication that they have any involvement in Zambia.

    I also looked at Biomax Fuels Ltd. of India, which seems to be doing similar work, but it appears confined to the Southern portion of the Indian sub-continent.

    The Luapula Provincial government gives a few details on progress of the plantations so far, but nothing about development partners for processing the palm oil.

    There was also BioMax of Perth Australia, which does not have a website that I could find, and wouldn't be included except for the peculiar e-mail address given for contacting the company, julian.ford@zambeziresources.com which caught my eye.

    The Lusaka Times has lots to say about the politics surrounding the project, but nothing more to illuminate the identity of the mystery development partner.

    I am therefore operating under the working assumption that BioMax of South Africa is in fact run by the Batman until its secret identity is revealed.

    It should also be noted that for lands unsuited to palm trees, Jatropha seed oil provides a more drought and cold resistant alternative. Experience in Kenya indicates however that education in proper selection and treatment of seed stocks from successive crops is crucial for profitability. Current commercial seed prices are relatively high, and it can take several harvests to recoup the initial outlay.

    For individuals interested in starting their own micro-refineries (100-200 litres/day) for used cooking oil or other plant oil inputs, I suggest exploring the sorts of products offered by NanoElf Biodiesel of South Africa.

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  2. Thanks, Yakima

    Its quite a comprehensive assessment.

    The Biomax mystery! It does seem that some confusion certainly exists on the company.

    I found the Lusaka Times article quite interesting as well. I suspect the area MP is planning is either planning his own or knows something about "Biomax".

    That said, I am now confident that it must be $80m. The detail of plans set in that article certainly go beyond £10,000. If it was that cheap, even I would be doing something to develop my home town of Nchelenge, rather than let Biomax run the show!

    It strikes me the challenge with all these projects is power. You need some power, and that is notoriously problematic with ZESCO. So I am impressed with their desire to get some Hydro Electric Power.

    Separately, it is worrying that a Parliamentarian can have so much influence in the planning process. That does require a second look I think.

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  3. Cho,

    Still no sign of the missing development partner, however my ersatz investigations have revealed an interesting report with relevance not only to alternative energy and fuel sources, but also to Tribal corporations and rural development. Without further ado, I give you the Quinault Indian Nation Renewable Energy Plan. It is my kind of report, with appendices stretching a hundred pages, detailing exactly how they plan to go about energy self-sufficiency, and why they think it will work.

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  4. Thanks! Looks very interesting. I shall dig into this during the weekend.

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  5. The hunt for Biomax continues! This time it has led me to the Energyquest fluidized bed gasifier, which claims to be able to transform most any biomass, operating, "with fuels that are not pelletized but in their raw state, including wastes that are powdery, flaky, fibrous, or chunky. Finally the fluid bed gasifier is not restricted to low moisture fuels like the downdraft gasifier. The moisture in the fuel is evaporated in the bed and exits the gasifier in the vapor phase as a component of the gas stream, acting as a diluent, thereby reducing the energy content of the gas. This has the effect of reducing the gas heating value and resulting gas temperature, causing the gas to become progressively harder to burn as the moisture content is increased. For these reasons it is desirable to keep moisture content generally below 25 - 30% although successful gasification and gas combustion have been achieved with fuels having moisture contents of up to 50%. In summary then, the fluid bed gasifier has a much greater tolerance for a wide range of biomass fuels, accepting fuel with broad ranges of physical characteristics and moisture contents.

    This innovative process provides a quantum leap in expanding the commercial potential of the Energy from Waste market. The Gasification system can utilize the by-products (having heat value) of processing industries as a fuel to produce heat and/or electrical energy. In addition gases such as hydrogen and methane can be synthesized.

    The syngas can also be further processed using commercially available technologies to produce fuels, chemicals, fertilizer, methanol, synthetic natural gas or other industrial gases."


    This technology appears very similar to the CPC Biomax process (which has working prototypes), making use of pyrolitic distillation to convert organic waste to gas, and may have the potential to provide large, relatively low-cost quantities of both H2 and CH4 for industrial purposes going forward. Unfortunately something rather nasty appears to have happened to Energyquest over the last several years, and its stock has steadily tumbled from a high above US$115 in October 2001, to a present paltry quotation of US$0.20 per share. I will try to find out what went wrong . . .

    . . . Hmm. Given that the technology as described ought to work, a perusal of their quarterly and annual reports indicates that these guys are either incompetent or scam artists. Since inception in 2004, the company has managed to rack up a total comprehensive loss of just over US$5.13M, having spent a total of US$4.11M on "consulting and management fees" and an impressively small US$46,111 on "research and development". They have never produced any revenue that I can detect, nor produced or sold a single prototype or commercial unit. Good cautionary tale in here somewhere. Clearly not the sort of development partner we are looking for however.

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  6. Cho,

    Not sure if you called attention to this July 2008 report from World Resources Institute in an earlier blog and I just missed it, but I found it quite interesting in terms of local planning and development for places like Nchelenge, so I am passing it along.

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  7. Yakima,

    I have been sent a link to Biomass, a Zambian Company focusing on development of biomass

    http://www.biomass-plc.com/

    It has an interesting video there!

    No I have not that WRI report. Looks very interesting indeed.

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  8. Cho,

    These Biomass folks seem to have the right idea, especially given that jatropha cultivation has the potential to supply two of the basic needs basket items which JCTR has identified as inflationary non-food items, soap and charcoal. I agree completely with the professor acting as Biomass spokesman in the film that education will be vital to spread cultivation of this non-native crop. Not only farmers, but local populations need to be aware of the presence and purpose of the crop because it is patently not food. Two children died recently in Kenya after mistaking jatropha seeds for cashew nuts, so it really is important!

    Jatropha oil is highly similar to palm oil, so whoever Biomax SA turns out to be, they may be well served by examining whether their equipment is capable of accepting both biodiesel inputs, either in mixture or batch form. It will also be interesting to see how calculations of rural point-to-point transport costs affect the ideal size of processors for scalability as suggested by WRI. Let's not wind up with a single plant so large that in order to be efficient, inputs are gathered from such distance that more fuel is being used than made.

    Seed banking is also very important, especially due to lack of experience with the plant in local soils and with long term weather variability. Lower yielding variants should not be discarded immediately, as they may display other valuable traits such as drought or pest resistance that would make them preferable for certain sites. Encouraging localized cross-breeding and communal seed banking with an emphasis on variability will accelerate the process of maximizing yields over time and ensuring the longevity of the industry.

    Do you think that a community such as Nchelenge would make productive use of scholarships/paid internships to train with Biomass? Is this a productive use of scarce early profits derived from a Tribal corporation or bundled remittances?

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  9. Qteros corp is attracting lots of interest (and investment) in its microbial approach to cellulosic ethanol production. Since for the microbes, ethanol is just a byproduct of life, there is no need for separate enzyme bath and yeast fermentation stages. The creatures can also be bred to specialize in certain types of cellulose (such as maize stalks) to maximize use of available agricultural waste. Very promising.

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  10. I am currently snowed in by an unseasonable storm system which is predicted to last most of the week, so as the wind swirls outside I can't help but think of all that energy going by. If the apartment complex I lived in had turbines up, it could be offsetting the extra power I have to use to heat the place during this unseasonable turn in the weather. I am not looking forward to the power bill this month (my apartment was constructed during the heyday of cheap local hydropower, so everything is electric).

    All the commercial wind firms with promising new designs seem to be waiting for Obama's energy policy and stabilization of oil prices before fully commercializing their relevant technology, making cost comparisons and profit projections impossible. Apparently others share my frustration, and are digging into the potential for low cost designs made out of existing or adapted parts.

    I found a 17 minute demonstration video (half of which is just skippable footage of proudly spinning windmill) of a DIY sub-US$100 vertical turbine capable of 12volt charging (unknown amps, therefore unknown watts). I think I would recommend shipping the bearings and gears along with the generator to the site, but assembling the blades and axles from local materials if possible. If weight can be anticipated in advance, the best possible "bearing" is none, mag-lev with whole earth magnets will provide near silent, frictionless operation. Bearings can make a big difference, and I think wise to use "U-get-what-U-pay-4" approach in choosing. Gears should be set to maximize rpm for the generator, however high winds may result in overloads, so brakes are important, and multiple gears with sprocket and chain systems are possible but require more maintenance and attentive operation. Flywheel attachments could also help to even out rpms.

    Of course there is no need to use this force only for electric generation, so pumps, saws, grinders, lathes, threshers, all could be run via such DIY vertical turbines, provided the scale of the machine is within the limits of torque at the axle to drive. Belt driven systems rather than sprocket gears are probably best for such applications, and along with bearings, will be the hardest thing to procure near the site.

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  11. Yakima,

    "These Biomass folks seem to have the right idea"

    Okay, the next recommendation is only if you have spare time. Over the weekend, Thomas Sinkala appeared on Blog Talk Radio alongside another expert in natural gas Kumbukilani Phiri, discussing Biofuels in Zambia. I have just begun listening to it and its 2 hours! So only if you can play it the background, while doing something else!

    Oh..the show hosts do go on for a bit in the beginning...best to skip the first 20 minutes...I should say, I have been on the show before rumbling about Zamtel...and other ills..

    "Do you think that a community such as Nchelenge would make productive use of scholarships/paid internships to train with Biomass? Is this a productive use of scarce early profits derived from a Tribal corporation or bundled remittances?"

    Yes, absolutely! I think this can definitely work. The Tribal corporation model would be the most ideal. But I think if such a project was done, it would be good if a small school was also proposed, alongside which the scholarships would work well. Most certainly.

    What is missing in Zambia is precisely that. Linking new ventures to education and training.

    The Lusaka Times are carrying a report that Govt is working on strategy , if possible incentives.

    I will check the video, once I finish listening to the Blog Talk Radio..

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  12. Cho,

    The Brain Drain program is very good, thanks for the link! I thought that you were particularly good in the Zamtel segment, explaining why the questions were more about communications strategy than the privatization of a single company. I found the biofuels discussion to be quite informative, though I am afraid that modesty may have prevented Prof. Sinkala from talking more about the activities of Biomass PLC and the opportunities it can offer to Zambian farmers looking to diversify or diaspora members looking to invest.

    I think that both experts were absolutely right about the drag that imported energy puts on the Zambian economy across the board, and especially in agriculture, I think the figure they used was 10% of GDP. That is a lot of potential profit for farmers and refineries if sustainable biofuels production can be developed. Biodiesel is especially useful as a transitional fuel in my opinion, as it can be refined to a quality where it can be freely mixed in with any amount of fossil-derived diesel, allowing consumers to draw from both supplies, unlike ethanol/petrol mixtures which must be consistent among distributors.

    My understanding is that Biomass PLC has some training programs already in place, however your idea of a school is intriguing. Perhaps with a slightly broader mandate, such as additional alternative crops and methods, value added processing, and shared facilities such as seed banking, this could be a part of the Mwansabombwe farm property development plan. This could also make it easier to bundle remittances from a broader geographic group of recipients, by using scholarships to travel to the school from other provinces, and take the knowledge home with them, supporting the school as well as distributing its benefits more broadly.

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  13. For those curious about how this whole palm oil/jatropha thing works, here is a step by step tutorial on chemistry and manufacture of biodiesel. Powerpoint slide series in pdf format.

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  14. Yakima,

    Glad you enjoyed the programme.

    On the other ZAMTEL programme...the mainstream media got wind of it, and offered an interview...which provided another opportunity for me to poke at the hapless Andrew Chipwendo...here is the link : Zamtel is a monopoly, insists economist (The Post, 17 December 2008)

    In parallel, I am trying to pull one or two levers to bring the model we have been discussing to the attention of the powers that be. I am also trying to get hold of some details on the "financial position" of ZAMTEL..to understand a bit more on its losses..

    On Prof Sinkala...yes, I thought he was modesty...though the questions were a bit unstructured..and the phone system did not help..(back to ZAMTEL!)....

    I thought his answers on the advantages of Jatropha as opposed to other alternatives was very good...

    What I am now wondering is if this is as simple as Prof Sinkala suggests..why is there not more investment?....The answer to that question in the programme by Dr Phiri..was that "there was no leadership or plan"...I assume he meant that "market discovery" was missing....

    In any case...what we need to know is how much this stuff would cost..something Prof Sinkala did not touch on...

    Here is another link :
    Bioenergy and Rural Development in Developing Countries: a review of existing studies

    I have not read the full document..its another long one..but it looks interesting...and will read it...the abstract says :

    "Four broad types of studies on rural development and bioenergy technologies are identified. Within these four types, this discussion paper presents a number of existing studies which are most relevant in the context of developing a research focus on the role, feasibility and issues associated with bioenergy, and in particular biofuels, as engine for rural development in developing countries. The results and recommendations of the referenced studies, reflecting the global trends of the current literature, highlight the importance of bioenergy technologies in the development process of poor rural communities. The surge of biofuels and in particular of their feedstocks on the international agricultural markets has recently commended a lot of attention. However, whilst biofuels hold a huge economic potential as internationally traded commodities, the various issues and challenges facing biofuel production systems could indicate that in the context of developing economies, they are better suited for the domestic energy markets. In any case, the analysis necessary to formulate policy recommendations on how, where and when to implement which bioenergy technology calls for a differentiated per region and/or technology and integrated within and alongside other rural production systems approach. In this context, this review of existing studies exposes some unanswered questions and research gaps."

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  15. Cho,

    Good coverage in the Post! Again you managed to transmit the central points without getting bogged down by Mr. Chipwende's rather foolish statements, well done!

    I do have to wonder if he has considered the implications of his statements actually being true, that CAZ controls the IGW, therefore Zamtel is not in a monopoly position, CAZ is. Doesn't that further mean that any imbalance in the access provisions or cross-subsidization of companies providing long distance services and CAZ is evidence of collusion and bias on the part of CAZ? Isn't that somewhat worse politically than simply allowing for the fact that due to historical circumstance and the small size of the overall market, the present government has inherited a rather classic parastatal corporation with a de facto monopoly position in the market which has led to distortions of the "playing field" over decades? I hope that he resolves his confusion soon.

    Thank you very much for that link, it is not only highly relevant in itself, but points to a perhaps significant German datamine on development subjects (will explore further). It is well written, and reassuring personally because it fits very closely with what I have been piecing together from my own comparison of individual technologies and policy regimens. Rather than try to summarize a review, I'll just go ahead and write what I think is relevant to rural Zambian development specifically.

    First, any energy derived from local projects should be used locally, to improve or expand production, exclusively. Consumer applications are not yet in reach, as tempting as household electric light and cooking and running hot water are not just politically, but from a humanitarian perspective. Those hoping to provide these amenities to specific persons via remittance should probably consider sending wind-up LED lanterns, efficient solar cookers, or other high end camping supplies. For those hoping to leverage local skilled labour along with their remittance, consider sending key machined components of DIY energy projects, such as bearing, gears, and generators for low cost wind, or lenses, stirling/steam engines, pumps, valves and belts for solar concentration of thermal energy applications. One important thing to remember about energy is that it is inherently dangerous, literally powerful, and ignorance compounds the risks of inferior materials and engineering. DIY projects should be kept small enough to control, however tempting economy of scale may seem. Tribal corporations seem ideally suited and positioned to handle larger projects safely and efficiently.

    Second, the current approach to electrical power specifically is stifling the sector. I think the country needs to accept the limitations of hydropower development, both in speed and absolute potential. Once in place, it is hard to beat the kWh cost of large hydro projects (though true upfront costs and lasting environmental costs appear to have been underestimated), but they are slow to build and truly limited in number (there is only one Zambezi after all). For a good while there was more power being produced than being used (before new copper projects requiring unprecedented amounts of electricity), and it made good sense to keep tariffs low in hopes of improving living conditions and inviting investment. The standard for setting consumer tariffs was based on the wholesale export price of power through international high-voltage transmission lines, but now it must reflect the import price (which anyone can guess is higher, especially because watts don't travel particularly well due to line resistance). The kWh cost of electricity from existing hydro should instead be considered a means of making other forms of electricity widely available to competing nations comparatively less expensive in Zambia, in order to boost production enough to return to a net-exporting position and allow earlier adoption of new technologies with long repayment periods (e.g. 3 parts $0.036 hydro + 1 part $0.090 wind/solar/biomass = $0.0495 avg).

    Third, biomass energy is already the default energy source, as fire, just inefficient and unhealthy. Properly shepherded, the cumulative annual growth of plants in Zambia contains more than enough energy to feed everyone, power everything, and further enrich and preserve the biosphere. Plants do not convert solar power very efficiently (i think it photosynthesis maxes out around 3% of potential energy converted), but there are a lot of them, and they do it anyway. While it is possible for people to live nomadically in order to enable them to use inefficient means of harvesting inefficiently photosynthesized energy without unsustainable impact on the resource base, but it is impractical and severely limits population density. Agriculture has its own set of undesirable side effects, but has clear advantages for both food and energy. By moving energy demands from forest to farm we not only decrease the impacts on the forest, but also risk taking away the immediate value of having the forest at all. Sustainable forestry, permaculture, and energy solutions such as wood cellulose to biogas conversion can all help preserve the local value of globally valuable forest ecosystems.

    Fourth, on to your questions about Jatropha (in reverse order). Yes, I agree that Dr. Phiri seems to be in the business of setting up Market Facilitation Organizations (MFOs as described on p. 12 of the Bioenergy Review), and although the definition is very broad, they do seem like a helpful idea. While Prof. Sinkala is correct that jatropha cultivation and biofuel conversion is proven technology elsewhere, my understanding is that several seasons of test fields will be required before individual species can be selected for mass cultivation in Zambian conditions. The risk of crop failure is currently too high to justify the expense.

    While jatropha has been cultivated on a small scale or gathered in its native environment for centuries, it was primarily for conversion to soap and fuel for fires, because it is poisonous to consume. It is really only recently, in the triple uproar over climate change, food to fuel vs shortage, and Southeast Asian deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. While palm oil is seen as a good thing to add to the African energy mix, it is overall under assault due to counterproductive yet lucrative practices in general. By establishing a competing jatropha industry at the same time as other biofuel inputs, the result is hopefully less expansive (and expensive) unintended consequences. Like the Qmicrobe, which sat happily digesting wood in cold New England bogs unnoticed until recently when someone noticed that it excretes ethanol naturally as a byproduct, jatropha was just another plant in the rainforest until someone took a look at the hydrocarbon structure of its oil.

    Getting jatropha oil is relatively easy, just press like any other nut, but the transformation into biodiesel from there is dangerous and tricky, not least because it involves inputs like alcohol and (far more dangerously) methanol. Those inputs can also be produced from biomass, so should not be an insurmountable obstacle, but handling them and achieving efficient catalytic chemical reactions to produce large quantities of biodiesel economically is a developing artform. I think that this is why Prof. Sinkala has two separate companies, Biomass Plc. for the growing and processing of jatropha oil, which he invites the Zambian public to join, and a much riskier but potentially lucrative operation to do biodiesel conversion which is still a privately held concern.

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  16. Large scale Palm Oil plantations in Indonesia draw lots of controversy, here is a taste (10 min video, Journeyman Pictures). Certainly the industry can and should do a better job of being truly sustainable and providing employment in Luapula. I am still wondering who exactly is the "Biomax" development partner for this venture and what kind of track record do they have precisely?

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  17. BusinessDay is reporting that South African companies are pushing ahead with implementation of planned electric co-generation facilities at various large scale manufacturing plants around the country. The activity is apparently in anticipation of changes in the regulatory regime. They quote one corporate chief executive, "Eskom, the National Energy Regulator of SA and the minerals and energy department are supportive of independent power producers but that needs to manifest rapidly in realistic legislation, policy and an enabling environment," [attributed to Charles Liebenberg of BioTherm Energy].

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  18. Investor to produce biodiesel in Luapula
    December 25, 2008

    An investor has expressed interest to venture into biodiesel production from palm oil in Luapula Province next year.

    BIOMAX Company Limited is willing to invest over US $50 million (50 million United States Dollars) for the establishment of a biodiesel processing plant in Nchelenge district.

    The company would set up a processing plant in the district for initial processing of crude palm oil after procurement of oil palm from local farmers.

    Read more...

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  19. MrK,

    Thanks for including that story, still no detail as to who Biomax (Co. Ltd.) is, where it is based, who owns it, and what its been doing in the past. Apparently their planned investment has shrunk somewhat from $80M to $50M, which makes me wonder where the reporters are getting these numbers if not from the company itself (in which case I would expect a spokesperson's name at least).

    We also get a new mystery player, Gurock Ropes, which is as elusive as Biomax, but in the opposite way. Where Biomax is such a popular name that there are too many false leads to other companies to sort out, Gurock Ropes is quite simply not mentioned anywhere I can find, other than the Lusaka Times. Perhaps it is as simple as a spelling error, but if these companies were engaged in similar development projects elsewhere in the world, I would expect them to be seeking/have sought positive press coverage in the process.

    It appears that this mystery may continue into the new year unsolved. Presumably they have to emerge from the shadows eventually, from the reactions of the commentators on the Lusaka Times site, they have a great deal of public relations work to do.

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  20. The Postnewsline.com is reporting that the Cameroon Development Corporation is pushing ahead with its plans to place an additional 6,000 hectares of land in the country under palm oil plantations. They have also purchased US$6M worth of oil pressing and processing equipment, with an eye toward export of palm oil for further reprocessing overseas.

    The European Union target of 10% biofuels substitution by the year 2020 will, by their own estimate, necessitate paying out up to an additional EU$17.6B per year to import them over and above the market price for fossil petroleum. They are unlikely to want to purchase these inputs from Southeast Asian sources due to the unsustainable practices of the palm oil industry and counterproductive nature of clearing tropical forests for monoculture of biofuel inputs.

    This is an opportunity for Zambia to take control over its own long term energy future. Even if the nation continues to import fossil petroleum for all of its fuel needs in the coming decade, by sale of sustainably harvested biofuel inputs such as palm, jatropha, or rapeseed oils to the EU and others at CO2 adjusted prices and in sufficient quantity, then it is still possible to become a net fuel exporter and plug the 10% drain imported fuel stocks impose on every facet of the economy.

    Domestic production and use of finished biofuels may remain uncompetitive with imported crude refined at Indeni for a decade or more, while at the same time cultivation, processing and export of biofuel precursors to developed nations seeking carbon emission reductions may be lucrative enough to offset imports barrel for barrel. If efficient facilities are eventually established for the production of finished biofuels for export, then the domestic "multiplier effect" on employment and incomes would be even greater.

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  21. Yakima,

    This is an opportunity for Zambia to take control over its own long term energy future. Even if the nation continues to import fossil petroleum for all of its fuel needs in the coming decade, by sale of sustainably harvested biofuel inputs such as palm, jatropha, or rapeseed oils to the EU and others at CO2 adjusted prices and in sufficient quantity, then it is still possible to become a net fuel exporter and plug the 10% drain imported fuel stocks impose on every facet of the economy.

    How about legalizing hemp? Apart from being useful for biofuels, it also reclaims degraded land, can grow in drought prone regions, requires no pesticides and herbicides and virtually no fertilizer, and can serve as a fiber crop to create rope and cloth for local manufacturing.

    Isn't time that, in this time of crisis, we let go of silly and wasteful practices like 'the war on drugs'?

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  22. Relative to other African countries power generation capacities Zambia compares so badly in terms of electricity connectivity. For example Kenya has close to a third of its population connected while access in zambia is only about a fifth of the population. Never mind that Kenya's installed generation capacity is only about two-thirds that of Zambia. The rehabilitation and upgrade of Victoria falls station was done in tandem with the construction of a transmission line to Namibia. Now there is the upcoming upgrade of Kariba and the Zambian govt and its counterparts in East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania are frantically looking for $660m to finance a transmission line from Zambia to East Africa. Shouldnt we first electrify all of our country before we think of providing power to other countries? I hope and pray that this project fails. I would rather use the $220m of the Zambian contribution to construct the 218 MW hydro station at Lumange falls. let us have power in all the districts of Zambia. Zambia first!

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  23. MrK,

    Most of the credible evidence I have seen on the subject indicates that hemp is a high value industrial fiber, and that the substance which makes it an effective "recreational drug," THC is, as such things go, extremely mild when it comes to side effects. I understand that the Greens in Germany put forward a bill every year that would simply equate alcohol with THC for regulatory purposes, either both legal or both illegal, on the basis that all medical studies show them to be roughly equivalent in terms of driving impairment, cancer incidence, and long term brain damage. Alcohol is more physically addictive than THC, and while alcohol poisoning is a relatively common occurrence, when delivered in plant form, either ingested or inhaled, it is almost impossible to reach deadly toxic levels of THC in the bloodstream.

    Even in the face of medical evidence, and the hypocrisy of widespread political support for alcohol consumption as somehow safer, prohibitionists fall back on shaky moral arguments such as gateway drugs and peer pressure. The experience of the Netherlands of course is quite the contrary of the established "wisdom" on the subject, where their government attributes the lower percentage of Dutch youth using marijuana to the fact that they have succeeded in making it, "Boring."

    Even in the U.S. which is the main proponent of the "War on Drugs," the prohibitionists always get worse results than the proponents of decriminalization. For example, in television ads aimed at children, the Nancy Reagan inspired "Just Say No" campaign was an abject failure, and to this day her birthday is celebrated by rebellious youth as an excuse to gather en masse and in public to consume marijuana. Contrast that with the Clinton administration's highly effective, "If You Don't Want To, You Don't Have To," campaign, which was widely criticized by the right wing because it admitted that if they wanted to, they could. This was then replaced by the Bush administration's, "Smoking Pot Funds Terrorists" campaign, which has certainly led to higher drug use by youth, and may have inadvertently improved the image of terrorists to boot. Democracies get nowhere by failing to trust their citizens, however some people in the U.S. are getting rich off of privatized prisons.

    The U.S. locks up more people than anyone else, and most of those for non-violent drug offenses, the vast majority of which are for marijuana distribution. The cost of maintaining this population is needless to say, not included in the Drug Enforcement Agency budget, and so while many attempt to argue that shifting funds away from costly enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws would improve interdiction of more dangerous substances, they fail to account for the vast sums to be made in prison construction and operation and the resulting political lobby in Washington.

    The proponents of the War on Drugs, especially in the U.S., are not open to medical evidence, or cost/benefit analysis, or even to simple policy pragmatism. Unfortunately, they are rather obsessive on the subject, and were Zambia to unilaterally decriminalize hemp and its products, including THC, it is likely that the repercussions would be undesirable, both diplomatically and monetarily. Perhaps the attitude will change under the Obama administration, and the world can once again make use of industrial hemp to stimulate rural development. The drug users can then receive treatment for their addictions instead of prison time, with savings for the public purse, and conscience.

    I am not certain about the claims of zero pesticides, as many creatures from insect to mammal find parts of the plant edible. Herbicide use is also questionable, although the plant is quite hardy and fast growing, enabling it to rise above many competing plants for light, most farmers are more concerned with the soil nutrient depletion of nearby weeds, and so will either weed by hand, use cover crops, solar degradable plastic sheets, herbicides or some mixture of the above for all crops. Fertilizer needs are going to depend on soil chemistry and pH balance, and as I do more research I am increasingly coming to conclude that lack of proper and widespread soil testing is responsible for many of the yield problems being experienced by Zambian farmers.

    One of the things I want to explore with Cho for Nchelenge/Mwansabombwe projects would be increased annual testing in order to tailor fertilizer applications to specific fields and crops. Of course this isn't something that farmers can do for themselves (for one thing the reagents involved are hazardous), so this is employment for someone who knows their way around a test tube and scientific procedure, however complete and even portable soil testing lab kits are readily available. As with most development projects, funding is a barrier.

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  24. Frank,

    I quite agree with you on both the need for greater generation capacity and increased connectivity (except where the economics are more favourable to localized micro-grids in extremely remote areas). It is indeed a sad state of affairs that the development of electricity demand from the mines was allowed to proceed at such a higher pace than electric generation. Unfortunately, the country now needs those transmission lines badly, to import, not to export power.

    The Namibia linkage came at a crucial time, just as the country was passing from exporter to importer status, and with the only other directions from which to import being the DRC and Zimbabwe. Namibia is one of the only countries in the region with any surplus to export, other than Mozambique, whose power Zambia cannot access without going first through Zimbabwe where there is even more load shedding than most places. There are some lines connecting to the East, but they are relatively low voltage, therefore inefficient, and upgrading them may actually save power in the long term. High voltage access to Tanzania's grid may actually allow for cheaper and/or more reliable import of Mozambique's power than Zimbabwe's grid currently does.

    For me this circumstance seriously calls into question the long standing policy of including reduced tariff electricity to prospective development partners as incentive to invest. The low average tariffs, and even lower amounts charged to major power consumers such as mining operations, simply result in less investment in generation activities. This is actually exacerbated by the prevalence of cheap hydropower sources already in place, as new generation sources cannot possibly match the per kWh operating cost of the existing dams. The ability to produce and sell electricity at a profit, especially if the nation can return to net export status, is what will spread electrification across all regions. As of now, no one wants to do so because there is no money in it.

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  25. Frank,

    While electrifying most of the country sounds good in theory, one should look at countries such as India where this has happened. There is a lot of unauthorized tapping into the power supply, resulting in revenue losses, also there is political pressure to subsidize power rates. The result is that there is insufficient revenue to construct new power plants to meet demand and regular power blackouts.

    Any expansion in the electrical grid should be planned so that it is sustainable in the long run i.e. enough revenue should be generated to maintain the grid as well as to provide power to customers that are able to pay for it.

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  26. Yakima,
    Both Kenya and Tanzania are in no position to supply power to Zambia. Currently both are facing power shortages. Mind you the installed capacity in Tanzania is 577 MW for a population of 40m. Kenya has 1200MW for a population of 36m. Namibia does not export electricity to Zambia. It is actually ZESCO that supplies electricity to towns in the Caprivi strip like Katima Mulilo. Namibia's main source of power is Ruacana which by the way only generates electricity for half of the year. Namibians rely a lot on imports from Eskom which unfortunately have been stopped due to South Africa's own power shortage. The point I am trying to make is that it is futile to be making this huge investments in interconnectors when you basically have nothing to sell. Why dont all the countries use the money to build power generation stations instead of interconnections? The Zambia- Tanzania-Kenya line will be a waste of money. If Zambia continues growing above 5% per annum do you really think we will ever have excess electricity to export?

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  27. Frank,

    Good questions! My apologies for confusing statements regarding the ability of obtaining imported power via Namibia or Tanzania, I did not mean to imply that the power would necessarily be generated there, but that connections to those two help to relieve the bottleneck currently created by Zimbabwe. I wrote something warning about this in 2007, it should be around here somewhere ... aha, here it is.

    "If Zambia continues growing above 5% per annum do you really think we will ever have excess electricity to export?" I think that the lack of electricity generation is limiting the growth of the Zambian economy, so I suppose I would have to turn the question on its head, without trying to be snippy, and say that maintaining growth above 5% per annum will require having excess electricity to export. Right now the only country in the region that seems to have a long term energy strategy is Mozambique, and emulating them over the long term will unfortunately require buying from them over the short term.

    I would like to see the ZESCO marketplace opened up to greater private sector participation, especially co-generation of at least part of the demand on site for large consumers. I don't see much hope of that unless tariffs go up enough to enable generation methods other than macro-hydro to be profitable. I guess I would rather see part of that higher price passed on to consumers in other countries, so I am not against the hv transmission lines in principle, as an investment that must be made eventually, but I will concede that there is ample room to question the timing and costs.

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  28. Consider another available biofuel feedstock plentiful in Africa: Typha. Typha clogs your waterways and causes innumerable problems. The need for its clearance is desperate. It is also an excellent ethanol feedstock, and can be pyrolized into fuelgas and charcoal(a traditional fuel that is now being used for soil reclamation as biochar). The quantity available is astounding, and the environmental side effects of its clearance are enormously beneficial.

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  29. SteveK,

    That is an intriguing suggestion, and indeed Typha is one biofuel source being explored in Oregon, USA as an alternative to maize. I am not certain if it is an appropriate long term feedstock for Zambia however, as The Environmental Council of Zambia has it listed as an invasive species. While I would applaud making productive use of the material when it is removed, it seems to me that the last thing we want is to encourage people to stop short of eradicating it where found. Then again, if it becomes endemic, might as well pay for clearing it away by using it as feedstock.

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