Kenya taps into Brazil's ethanol expertise

Last month, a team of four ethanol experts from Brazil visited the East African country as part of a program to share advice.

Rob Crilly
Advisee: Israel Agina is the director of an ethanol plant in Kisumu, Kenya, for the Spectre International sugar firm. Brazilian experts offered advice during a visit last month.

When Spectre International took over an ethanol plant in the far west of Kenya four years ago, the company inherited a run-down site that had been abandoned – unfinished – two decades earlier. The buildings were shells and the distillation columns had never been used.

Today, the Kisumu Ethanol Plant employs 450 people, and tankers load up with 75,000 liters of ethanol every day, destined for pharmaceutical companies and producers of alcoholic drinks.

But as he sits in his office, one of the plant's directors, Israel Agina, says the industry is still in its infancy.

"We have the potential of three times the production because we have fermenters that are idle and have not been activated because of a lack of market," he explains, as the sweet, slightly sickly scent of fermenting molasses wafts through his open window close to the shores of Lake Victoria.

Last month, a team of four ethanol experts from Brazil visited his plant and other key players in Kenya's sugar sector as part of a program to share their expertise.

The aim is to kick-start the East African country's moribund sugar industry by learning lessons from Brazil's 30-year ethanol program.

"For us, the beverage industry is not very large," says Mr. Agina, whose plant uses molasses – a waste product from sugar mills – to produce alcohol that is pure enough to drink by the time is has passed through six distillation columns. "So the answer is ethanol as fuel, which is used extensively in Brazil.

"Brazil has done wonderful work with up to 3 million vehicles running on ethanol alone – a much cleaner fuel," says Agina. "So we feel their expertise will speed our development."

The program is in its early days. Last month's Brazilian delegation came as an assessment mission, working out what sort of help Kenya would need before flying on to Rwanda and Uganda.

Agina, who plans to travel to Brazil as part of the program, says his plant's technology is as up-to-date as anyone's.

"What we are looking at is maybe help with the feedstock we use. The sugar industry here is limping along. Maybe Brazil can help farmers switch to a faster-growing variety of sugar cane," he says.

"They were also talking about zoning of available land to make sure that fuel crops do not reduce the amount of land available for food."

Africa's rush for biofuel has not been without controversy.

Sugar farmers have been accused of targeting pristine forests, home to important species of birds and primates.

And with rising food prices affecting millions of people across an already hungry continent, the United Nations has warned that diverting crops to produce ethanol has further increased pressure on prices.

But ethanol could provide the Kenyan economy with a means to rejuvenate its sugar sector, which produces about 400,000 tons.

The country has to import 200,000 tons each year and has struggled to protect its own industry in the face of subsidized production elsewhere.

Yet sugarcane is visible in markets and streets throughout the country, where hawkers cut chunks for customers to chew.

The trick now is to use the expertise of specialists from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation and the Institutional Network for the Sugarcane & Ethanol Sector Development to bring Kenya's struggling industry into the 21st century.

Adam Jayme Muniz, Brazil's deputy chief of mission to Nairobi, says the benefits to both sides are clear. Africa has a lot to learn from his country's experience in producing a cleaner and sustainable form of energy.

"What we gain from this is more countries producing ethanol, helping produce a global market for biofuel," he says. "That's good for everyone."

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