World's First Ethanol Cooking Fuel Plant Opens in Mozambique

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Today, ethanol plants are producing transportation fuel in just about every corner of the world, from Brazil to Iowa to Germany and beyond. But there hasn't yet been a biofuel plant specifically designed to produce sustainable cooking fuels—which, according to its operators, makes the one that opened today in Dondo, Mozambique the world's first.

The plant is a cornerstone of a multi-tiered venture, CleanStar Mozambique, which will buy cassava from local farmers and refine it into ethanol. That ethanol will then be distributed as cooking fuel in Maputo, the nation's burgeoning but very poor capital. The hope is that the new market for cassava will boost the incomes of 1,500 local farmers, while creating a supply of clean cooking fuel that can be used as a mass market alternative to charcoal.

"We're estimating an average of a tripling of income in the first three or four years," said Stefan Maard, a sustainability manager for CleanStar Mozambique. That income is coming from an incredibly low baseline, he adds. But it will be enough for families to save some surplus, to pay for school—beyond covering basic necessities.

The unusual business model pioneered by CleanStar Mozambique—a partnership between CleanStar Ventures and Novozymes, a Danish industrial enzymes producer—stretches all the way across this fully developed supply chain. There's been much tinkering here: CSM employs a sustainable farming model in which cassava will account for one-sixth of the yield. To keep the soil fertile, farmers must also harvest other edible crops. Project leaders say that they're sensitive to the "food vs. fuel" issue, and that they've steered clear of monoculture farming methods.

After the cassava is sold to CSM, it's refined at the Dondo plant—which will eventually produce 2 million liters of cooking fuel a year. According to Novozyme's CEO Steen Riisgaard, the plant was donated and built by the American ethanol company, ICM, which refused to take a share in any profits.

The refined ethanol is then distributed to stores and marketing outlets in Maputo. Thelma Venichand, CleanStar’s Director of Sales and Marketing, a Maputo native, developed a new brand, Ndzilo, with a local staff to hawk the biofuel. Ndzilo is also selling clean cookstoves Mozambicans will need to use the new fuel.

The net result, as you can see, is a tightly orchestrated, start-to-finish venture. The entire supply chain is accounted for, and there's little room for error. The project attracted the attention of Bank of America, whose carbon desk invested seven figures (representatives wouldn't give a more concrete number) in CleanStar Mozambique.

On its face, it's a win-win-win-win. But the project is still new, and the market is still unproven. There are high hopes that the biofuel plant will be running at its top capacity, and that 120,000 households will own the cassava-powered cooking fuel within three years.

Which would mark significant progress: As I've noted previously, the indoor air pollution generated by charcoal cookstoves kills two million people every year. And they're ubiquitous in Mozambique—read all about the damage they do, and how the charcoal is bought and sold in my previous posts in the series. Solving this crisis should indeed be an urgent priority, and this venture is remarkably promising.

Tags: Africa | Agriculture