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November 01, 2009

Ethiopia to develop biofuels

by Tsegaye Tadesse

Ethiopia wants to emulate Brazil by developing biofuels to cut its dependence on oil imports that cost the Horn of Africa nation more than a billion dollars a year, a government official said.

Ephrem Hassen, coordinator of biofuels development in the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told Reuters in an interview that Ethiopia was developing biofuel crops on more than half a million hectares of arid land. “Castor oil plants, jatropha and palm oil plants are being developed over 500,000 hectares of arid and barren lands in different parts of the country so as to reduce land-locked Ethiopia’s dependency on imported oil,” Ephrem said.

The two major biofuels are petroleum substitute ethanol, which is mainly produced from grains and sugar crops, and biodiesel for which the major feedstocks are vegetable oils.

Brazil began its sugar cane-based ethanol programme 30 years ago after the world oil crisis sent its economy into a nosedive. It now has the most advanced biofuels programme in the world with more than 30,000 filling stations that offer pure ethanol fuel and gasoline blended with 20-25 percent ethanol. Ephrem stressed that Ethiopia’s programme would not use land fit for food production. Ethiopia suffers from food shortages and the government appealed last month for 159,410 tonnes of food to feed some 6.2 million Ethiopians hit by drought.

Non-food crops such as jatropha can be grown on semi-arid land and poss less of a threat to food production than other biofuel feedstocks such as grains and vegetable oils. Ethiopia has also earmarked some 1.6 million hectares of fertile land for foreign investors willing to develop modern farms with a view to making the country food self-sufficient and for boosting agricultural exports.

Ephrem said investors were developing biofuels on tens of thousand of hectares of land in the western regions of Gambella and Benishangule and in the Tigray and Amhara regions. In addition, four state-owned sugar estates at Methara, Wonji, Finchaa and Tendaho, have been scaled up to boost their ethanol output, he said.

The country has a limited amount of ethanol produced as a by-product from sugar industries which has been blended with petrol and used as transport fuel, he said. “Such a mix of ethanol with petrol has resulted in economic gains that include reduction in the levels of imported petrol,” Ephrem said.


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