The multimillion dollar Chisumbanje ethanol plant is expected to resume its operations soon, after 18 months with no production and wrangling with the local community over a host of issues.
The plant owners, Green Fuel (Pvt) Limited, pledged it would address villagers’ concerns, clearing the way for the Ministry of Energy and Power Development to gazette a rule requiring it to blend its ethanol. This, in turn, would pave the way for Green Fuel to sell its product and resume production.
Green Fuel has also assured villagers that it would fulfill social responsibilities, provide irrigated farmlands, pay compensation for lost land, and stop confiscating livestock (though officials warn that city bylaws still permit livestock to be impounded under certain circumstances).
The company returned to negotiate with villagers last Friday as an ongoing land dispute and other challenges prompted the government to block Green Fuel from selling its product. With more than 80 million litres of ethanol unsold, Green Fuel managers felt they could no longer afford not to address the issues.
Green Fuel General Manager Graham Smith said the firm has lost 18 months of business and retrenched over 1,000 workers while the plant has been idle.
The Friday meeting with company representatives, villagers and local government representatives concluded with the company addressing villagers' major concerns, including a promise that livestock will not be confiscated or sold at auction by the company.
Headman Phineas Nyamukwakwa said he was upbeat about the discussions, calling them a step forward. He said a new deal with the firm would ensure a more cooperative relationship.
Nyamukwakwa said: “We want the project to go ahead, as we are very hungry here. We want irrigation to sustain the people here. It is drought prone in this part of the country and an irrigation scheme from Green Fuel would go a long way to alleviate the problem.”
Chisumbanje villager Elisha Moyana said he hopes a deal will mean that development may be forthcoming.
Meki Makuyana, Member of Parliament for Chipinge-South, where the project is hosted, said he is optimistic that the agreement outlined on Friday would ensure that the community may benefit.
“We want social problems to be addressed first,” said Mr. Makuyana, adding that “and as a sitting MP I want that to be fulfilled. The relationship between the company and the villagers is very important for the survival of this project.”
Claris Madhuku of the Platform for Youth Development, an organization that works for the rights of the villagers in Chisumbanje, said he is happy that a dialogue between Green Fuel and villagers has started.
Mr. Madhuku said the firm must ensure the villagers' expectations are fulfilled for the good of the project.
“The committee we have now is very progressive, which is good for the project,” Madhuku said. “We are happy there is progress, as we are starting to speak to each other, which we did not do before. There has to be cooperation between investors and local people for us to achieve what we want, which is development.”
Green Fuel spokesperson Lillian Muungani said she was also pleased about the resumption of dialogue.
Ethanol is the chemical name for alcohol, the same alcohol in wine and beer. It is produced from the fermentation of biomass materials, such as sugar cane. Mixed, or blended, with other fuels such as gasoline, ethanol helps improve fuel efficiency.
Meanwhile, some fuel service station owners said Green Fuel needs to extensively market its products before selling ethanol to zimbabweans.
They said the company’s ethanol prices cannot compete if ethanol is not cheaper than gasoline at the pump.
Fuel service station owner, Abednico Bhebhe, said many people are also unsure about using the blended fuel in their vehicles.
The company’s ethanol price was one dollar 10c per litre in the local market before it stopped production. Ethanol is priced internationally between 72c and 75c per litre. Zimbabwe is yet to pass a law compelling motorists to use fuel blended with locally produced ethanol.