Malawi, the warm heart of AfricaToward the end of last year, the small Southern African nation of Malawi suffered the worst fuel crisis in its history. There were long queues at service stations across the country in search of fuel which scarcely came. Business was almost brought to a complete standstill.At the peak of the problem, for the first time, some folks were sleeping at the filling stations for several nights; transport fares went up.Economists calculated that for the month of November alone a loss of K111billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Malawi government initially put the blame on Mozambique for the country’s fuel woes, claiming that fuel was being held up because of congestion in the ports of Nacala and Beira. But this claim was strongly denied by managers of both ports. Mr. Fernando Couto, Chief Executive Officer of the Northern Development Corridor (CDN), which runs the Nacala port and rail system was quoted saying Malawi “had simply run out of foreign exchange and had even asked to borrow fuel”. Media reports also seemed to corroborate this view. One wonders why the government failed to call a spade a spade in the first place. The good thing is, however, that the situation is now back to normal.

I hope that very important lessons pertaining to the vulnerability of Malawi’s fuel capacity have been learned. Sometime in September 2009, it was reported  that Qatari firm will build fuel storage facilities and an oil pipeline from the Indian Ocean Port of Beira to the town of Nsanje, in exchange for contracts for the supply of fuel to the Southern African country. While this is, obviously, great step forward, it will not stop the suppliers from closing the tap in the event that the country fails to pay for their products due to forex shortages. Therefore, it is very important for the country to urgently look for other ways and means in order to ensure that the fuel crisis of 2009 does not rear its ugly head again.

The country should start searching for oil and other hydrocarbon deposits from within the confines of our borders. Because other countries in the region have already discovered hydrocarbons, I am being tempted to think that Malawi has these natural resources as well. For in stance, with the discoveries of hydrocarbons in Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, Kenyans have intensified the search for oil.They believe that they now standing at the door; it is only a matter of time before they discover their own hydrocarbons.

The country must also push for alternative fuels. As of now, the two promising alternative fuel that can be pursued more easily are ethanol and biodiesel.I have written extensively on using ethanol to fuel petrol driven cars.The ethanol driven vehicle project has been around for sometime now; its results have been very good. In addition to that, kits for converting petrol driven cars to flex-fuel type, which can use pure ethanol, pure petrol or any combination of the two fuels in a single tank, are readily available on the market. Now what remains is for the government to give directions on how the country will start implementing flex-fuel type vehicles.

Way back in 2007, when I first heard about the ethanol driven vehicle project in Malawi, I was of the view that Malawi was just re-inventing the wheel because Brazil, which has a vast experience in this technology, had already done what Malawi was trying to do. I, therefore, asked the office of the Director of Science and Technology to just send some folks to Brazil for training on Ethanol propelled vehicles and see how they could implement the same in Malawi. To which, he responded by saying that it was not easy to send people to Brazil for training. He further said that they even allocated some funds during the 2006/07 financial year for an officer from Lilongwe Technical College to go to Brazil, but it did not materialize because he could not get the invitation letter for him to process the Visa. Since that time, we have seen the Brazilian ambassador designate to countries in the region attending the launch of a flex-fuel vehicle imported from Brazil for the ethanol driven vehicle project.

Last year, someone, no less than the President Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika himself, went to Brazil for a three-day state visit, during which Malawi and Brazil signed a joint framework for technical cooperation between the two countries. Under the framework, Malawi would cooperate with Brazil in agriculture, energy, mining, trade, sports and technology transfers with particular reference to renewable energy. This gives Malawi an opportunity to advance the issue of flex-fuel type vehicles with the urgency that it deserves. The onus is on Malawi to learn as much as possible from Brazil about this technology. Let 2010 go down as a year when the country introduced ethanol pumps side by side with petrol and diesel pumps at some filling stations in the country. Government has to give licenses to some automobile dealers entrusted with the conversion of petrol driven cars to flex-type. The benefits are immense!

The country’s two ethanol plants in Dwangwa and Nchalo which produce a combined annual ethanol output of 17.8 million liters, but each of the plants has a design capacity of 16 million liters per year.The country’s annual consumption is between 80 and 90 million liters. Currently, ethanol is used mostly for blending with petrol (at 10% of ethanol to 90% of petrol), though some is used for industrial purposes, such as in pharmaceuticals. This shows that at the current production levels has excess ethanol, which can be used locally as fuel in motor vehicles. It has been reported that it is also possible to produce ethanol at full capacity by the two companies because there is room for expansion of sugarcane fields at Dwangwa, Nchalo and Kasinthula to produce more sugar that will result in more molasses for more ethanol. While ethanol may not totally replace petrol, it will go a long way in reducing the state’s petrol budget thereby saving the much needed forex. The use of ethanol for fuel will increase demand for sugarcane. Expanded sugarcane farming will offer employment opportunities to Malawians. Other Malawians will get additional employment in the sugar as well as the ethanol processing and marketing chain.

I have also written about jatropha, a source of biodiesel, which can help to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported fossil diesel. While Zimbabwe commissioned the first biodiesel production plant, valued at US$80 million way back in 2007, biodiesel production in Malawi is still in its infancy. Sometime in 2008, it was reported that a consortium comprising Netherlands-based TNT Group and some African investors was preparing to set up a $12-million biodisel production plant in the capital, Lilongwe. It was announced that Malawi was expected to start producing biodiesel in 2009. Come 2009, there was nothing on the ground.

When I asked a Malawian investor, who was expected to be one of the key people in the project, he told me that there was nothing happening in Malawi; the last communication he had with the other guys was an inquiry of the diesel pump price in Malawi which he gave them. In October, 2009, it was reported that Malawi was considering creating two new biodiesel plants to diversify energy resources; no reference was made to the earlier $12-million biodisel production plant announcement. The Ministry of Energy and Mines only said that the country should be able to mass-produce biodiesel by the end of the year (2009). We are now in 2010 and I have not heard anything about mass production of biodiesel in Malawi.Government must refrain from making sensational announcements which do not tally with what is happening on the ground; people want to see real progress.

On the other hand, in January 2009, Air New Zealand successfully completed the first commercial aviation test flight powered by the second generation biofuel jatropha, sourced from South Eastern Africa (Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania) and India.I am wondering why the local media did not publish this sweet news. I would like to know the Malawi-based company which supplied this jatropha. I would also like to know the extent of its operations in Malawi. I am sure it is one these small scale biodiesel producers. If someone has more information on this issue, please feel free to share it with me. This further confirms the potential of jatropha in Malawi. The other good thing about biodiesel is that it can be used in any diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine or the fuel system. Apart from jatropha, biodiesel can also be made from cotton seed, soya beans, sunflower seed, cooking oil and animal fats.

While ethanol and biodiesel cannot replace fossil fuels completely, it is important for the Malawi government to step up its efforts in the adoption of these alternative fuels. If the country had flex-fuel vehicles and biodiesel plants during the fuel crisis last year, the problems that rocked the country would have been reduced to some extent. Therefore, let us make 2010, a year of tremendous progress in the adoption of alternative fuel!