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Zim splashes out on huge ethanol scheme

23 December 2010 - 00:05 By TONDERAI KWIDINI

Could Zimbabwe be able to provide itself with enough fuel needs without importing in 20 years' time?

This is the question a group of businessmen is attempting to answer with an ambitious ethanol project which is being undertaken in the arid, rural Chisumbanje area.

The project is a partnership between the government-owned Agricultural Rural Development Authority and Greenfuel, an investment team which is overseeing the construction of the plant where ethanol will be distilled.

The agricultural companies growing cane for the fuel are Macdom at Chisumbanje and Rating at Middle Sabi.

These vast estates belonged to the rural development authority, but lay abandoned after years of mismanagement.

Most villagers in this district depended on the authority for their livelihoods.

However, with the birth of the ambitious ethanol scheme in March 2009, life has gradually begun to return to the area.

There is an air of industry at the Middle Sabi Estate.

Glen Mirams, the project manager on the estate, said: "All these buses carry workers to and from work. The workers are drawn from surrounding areas and as far as Buhera and Masvingo."

Employees are fixing water canals blocked after years of neglect. A huge engine pumps water from the Sabi River into the canals, which stretch for kilometres, and overhead irrigation equipment sprays the vast sugarcane fields that stretch to the horizon.

On Chisumbanje Estate, Graeme Smith, the project's general manager, supervises what will eventually be a venture covering 50000ha.

In scorching 41°C heat, Smith oversees the vast investment from offices at the Chisumbanje resort.

The huge ethanol distillation plant is being built mostly using locally produced materials, save for a few specialised components which have been imported from Brazil and Europe.

The venture is modelled on the lines of Brazil's ethanol production, which now provides 35% of the Latin American country's fuel needs.

Brazil also exports ethanol to Europe and the US in an effort to generate foreign currency.

Smith said: "Brazil's technology developed through very similar problems that Zimbabwe is facing. But they looked at how they could resuscitate power and fuel, because these were crucial to the economic recovery of the country."

Until a few years ago, Smith was a farmer in the south of Zimbabwe.

He said the ethanol project was environmentally friendly. "We are testing a green harvester."

At the moment, 3000 workers are employed on the venture - but, by completion, the number will have grown to about 7000.

Although it has received positive feedback from local community leaders, critics have warned that the project is taking farming land from the people.

So far, $270-million has been poured into the scheme. An estimated $600-million will have been spent by its completion.

At full capacity, the ethanol plant will produce three-million litres of ethanol and 120MW of electricity a day - enough to light up the whole of Manicaland.

Smith said the intention was to create 11 such green belts around the country's arid regions. The project has already caused much excitement among local villagers.

"We can now get jobs," said Tendai Mutisi, who lives in Cheche Village.

"Some of us have never been able to lay our hands on a dollar."

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