By Chimwemwe Mangazi:
As demand for tobacco continues to decline, Malawi plans to start producing jet fuel and biodiesel from a cross breed of tobacco varieties that do not contain nicotine called solaris.
The development brings a new ray of hope to Malawi, which has seen earnings from its green gold sharply declining in recent years due to the global anti-smoking campaign.
A company called DDN Energy Solutions has announced plans to set up multimillion dollar farms and factories for production of solaris and jet fuel following completion of agronomy studies on performance of the crop by the Agriculture Research and Extension Trust (Aret).
DDN Energy Solutions Director, Robert Mhango, said they will roll out production at a high scale and are targeting 10,000 hectares in the 2019/20 season.
“We will have the main processing and refining plant in Lilongwe but there will be other factories to begin the processing, especially in localities where the crop will be grown. By 2020, we want to have the first products sold and we are targeting the aviation industry and we have a market in Europe because they are already using the technology.
“We want to explore further the viability of the business; so, in the first two to three years, we will grow it on our own and if it is stable we will engage farmers to help us produce the crop because the demand is high and we will be required to produce as many tonnes as we can,” Mhango said.
Aret Chairperson, Reuben Maigwa, said his organisation has been researching since 2015 and found that the crop follows husbandry practices of regular tobacco and can be grown in any district where tobacco is grown.
2015 and we have found that it is performing well; with this crop, we depend on the seed rather than the leaves as in tobacco. It is an annual crop with possibility of multiple harvests if irrigated and the seed contains 39 to 41 percent oil on dry matter basis and can yield 33 percent of crude oil.
“Oil extraction can be processed into Bio-diesel and Jet A fuel while the leaves can be turned into livestock feed and the stems into briquettes. It yields 2,500 to 3000kg of seed per hectare and an expected gross profit of $1.33 per kg,” Maigwa said.
Controller of Agriculture Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Alexander Bulirani, said it would be much easier for farmers to adopt solaris as the practices are the same.
In 2016, South African Airways patronised a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back using bio-fuel made from solaris.