Rising foreign investment in Zambia’s biomass industry

Nature has presaged Zambia’s utilization of biomass energy. Agriculturally the country is well suited for biomass fuel crops. Although less than 20 percent of its arable land is cultivated Zambian farmland nonetheless produces a surplus for export, lessening the food-fuel tradeoff that often exists with biomass. Furthermore, the nation’s relative dearth of domestic oil and natural gas resources (oil was not discovered in the country until 2006) and landlocked isolation from the seaborne oil trade give added impetus for the development of renewable energy in Zambia.

Enter foreign investment. Last month Wuhan Kaidi Holding Investment Co. of China agreed to fund USD 450 million to boost the central African nation’s production of bio-ethanol and biodiesel. The project will develop 1.8 million hectares of land in the cities of Nakonde and Isoka near the Tanzanian border. Bioethanol will be produced from sugarcane, sisal, cassava and sweet sorghum while bio-diesel will be generated from jatropha, soybeans, palm oil and castor oil. Over 10,000 are expected to be employed at the biomass sites, with USD 102 million budgeted for worker housing. Although not Kaidi’s first biomass investment outside of its home country—the first one being for jatropha cultivation in Laos—the Chinese company has taken an extreme interest in Zambia, with plans to invest USD 6 billion in the country.

But Kaidi wasn’t the first. Earlier in 2011 the South African company AGZAM signed a memorandum of understanding with the Zambian government for a 15,000 hectare sugar plant. Along with 200,000 metric tons of sugar each year the plant is anticipated to produce 28 million liters of bioethanol. In 2010, with the support of international organizations such as the World Bank Climate Fund and the Copenhagen Fund, a campaign began to farm Moringa oleifera. The Moringa plant yields 50-70 metric tons of biomass per hectare without irrigation, and 100-120 metric tons with. Under the guidance of the Zambian Bioenergy Association, the harvested Moringa will be used as raw material for a biodiesel plant—for sale locally—and three biomass densification plants that will focus on export markets. Also from South Africa back in 2008, Omnia funded USD 3.5 million for jatropha agronomics research in the country.

Prior to these foreign biomass fuel initiatives were are a handful of enterprising domestic companies. The first major initiatives in Zambia occurred in the early 2000’s when D1 Oils and Marli Investment Zambia began harvesting jatropha to make biodiesel. These efforts culminated with Marli building a USD 16 million biodiesel plant in 2006. The next year Zambia’s largest sugarcane plantation, Zambia Sugar Plc, announced it would drastically increase production as well as produce bagasse-based bioethanol from one of its plantations 125 kilometers south of Lusaka.

Yet furtherance of Zambia’s biomass energy industry is not without challenges, most notably the country’s land policy. Around 94 percent of the country’s land is deemed customary land, subdivided into 100,000 to 500,000 plots under the control of chiefdoms. Without official title to the property, local small-scale farmers are limited in their ability to receive loans and expand output. The result is underutilized land, some of which may be allocated to biomass fuel crops.

With the ability to buy large tracks of land, well funded foreign investors are making inroads into this system. 2011 may yet mark the turning point in a trend seemingly predetermined by nature: Zambia’s shift to biomass fuel.