Ethanol is probably the next big thing to happen to Malawi

That petrol propelled vehicles in Malawi can, with a slight modification, run on a combination of petrol and ethanol in any ratio is great news for more reasons than one.

The economy will probably be the biggest winner. Unlike petrol, ethanol is a local product, which means its extensive use will be a major foreign exchange saver. The huge foreign bills that Malawi incurs on importation of fuel will be eased somewhat.

Additionally, use of ethanol will result in the creation of jobs locally, as many people will be engaged at various levels of the distribution chain. Some will be growers of the crop that will be used as the feedstock for the production process; others will be involved in the actual manufacturing process of the product; and yet others in the physical distribution, including manning the outlet points.

The environment will be another clear winner. Petrol is refined from a fossil product known as petroleum, which is a carbon rich source that is extracted from the bowels of the earth. While it lies in its reservoirs under the earth it does not pose any environmental danger, but when we burn it in our engines, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a green house gas. Green house gases are the ones that envelope the earth and prevent heat from escaping, thereby causing the earth to attain higher temperatures than normal. This phenomenon is called global warming.

Ethanol, on the other hand, is made from plants, which take up carbon dioxide as they grow. In secondary school we used to learn about photosynthesis, being a process in which plants take up carbon dioxide and mix it with water, in the presence of sunlight, to produce starch and oxygen.

Ethanol, therefore, does not add extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As such it is termed by environmentalists as carbon neutral.

Brazil has shown that a country can wean itself from imported petroleum products. Since the 1970s, Brazil has vigorously pursued the development of biofuels and has been highly successful in this regard. Experts believe that the rapid economic growth that Brazil has undergone, making it the sixth largest economy in the world, ahead of Britain, is in part due to its success in the implementation of ethanol as an alternative fuel to petrol.

In Malawi, Press Corporation through Presscane, Ethanol Company of Malawi and Puma are trying to promote the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel to petrol. We will obviously not all switch over to ethanol overnight. It is a process that will take time to make a real impact on the economy or the environment, but that process must start.

I recently read an article in a local paper which stated that Presscane had come up with a pricing structure in order to start marketing ethanol to motorists, but government’s approval had not yet been given. While we are waiting for an amicable agreement to be reached between government and the ethanol producers, we will continue to spend foreign exchange on importation of petrol and to release extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I do not know how much longer we still have to wait but I can only urge all concerned parties to ensure that everything that can be done is done in order for those motorists wishing to switch over to ethanol to be able to access it. In Brazil, the government moved in with various policy interventions over the years to ensure the sustainability of ethanol production.

As we search within our nation to find ways of growing the economy, let us be mindful that ethanol as an alternative fuel has great potential to do the magic for us. I am aware that some pundits have argued that dedicating land to production of crops meant for producing biofuels spells doom for food production. I personally do not buy this argument. In Malawi, huge hectrage of land is dedicated to the growing of non food items, the major one being tobacco. Crops like tea, coffee, or macadamia are, to all intents and purposes, not food crops but cash crops. In Malawi food crops are maize, rice, cassava and potatoes because they are the ones from which the staple diet is made.

If tobacco, tea, cotton, coffee and macadamia have not threatened our food production, why should sugarcane or maize (the crops from which ethanol is made)?

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