ZIMBABWE can grow 20 percent of its petrol, blending ethanol derived from sugar cane easily grown in the Lowveld, but is not doing this adding to the pressures on the allocations of foreign currency. Indeed blending is now approaching just five percent since the single plant owned by Green Fuels in Chisumbanje is simply unable to meet the demand, despite the fact that the company pushed the hardest to get Government to use its statutory powers to raise the standard blend to 15 percent ethanol.
The severe drought last year did cut the cane harvest significantly and now other excuses are being offered, including the difficulty of harvesting cane in muddy fields.
Indeed, since Green Fuels, a joint venture of the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority and Macdom and Rating Investments, has rarely managed to supply enough ethanol for the mandatory 15 percent E15 blend, let alone for the higher percentages that were starting to impact the market after simple engine conversions made these possible for use in ordinary cars.
So now other investors have been given the green light to submit proposals.
We hope Government will move fast in assessing any new investment proposals so that ethanol production can be guaranteed up to E20 and new ethanol-based fuel blends can be introduced for even greater benefits.
Zimbabwe gets four major benefits from blending ethanol into petrol.
First there is the major saving in import costs and every such saving is worth pursuing as those who now complain of the shortage of funds in export-fed offshore accounts used to buy imports must surely agree.
Fuel is the largest single import, although food might exceed this in a bad drought year, and so knocking 20 percent off the bill is a big plus.
Secondly it provides an income for a lot of contract cane farmers in the Lowveld, families that can earn a better standard of living and all that implies by farming and selling cane to ethanol plants. The land is there and water supplies are now a lot better as an excellent rainy season is filling dams, including the big anchor dams that keep the area alive in a major drought. What is needed is a crop that can be sold to guaranteed buyers and cane is an obvious choice.
Thirdly it provides Zimbabwean jobs in the plants processing the cane into ethanol and in other parts of the fuel industry in Zimbabwe.
Finally it is a very green fuel. The carbon it produces on being burnt is largely reabsorbed by the carbon dioxide that the growing plants take in. There are of course no perfect conversions, but generally cane-based ethanol has the lowest carbon footprint of any of the biofuels. And Zimbabwe needs to play its part in arresting global warming.
There is no downside. It is a pure plus.
So when assessing a proposal the Government must look at how it contributes to these four benefits and act accordingly.