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Kenya Farmers Irrigate Drought-Hit Crops More Cheaply, Cleanly with Biofuel from Cotton Waste

The biodiesel he is using is not just good news for him, it is also good news for the planet

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cotton waste, biofuel
FILE - Samples of soy oil and biodiesel at laboratory in Santa Fe province, Argentina, Sept. 13, 2017. From Brazil to Indonesia, the rush to cultivate biofuel crops has pushed farmers to switch from crops-for-food to more profitable crops-for-fuel. VOA

Kenyan farmer Abel Mutie Mathoka thought it must be a joke when he was told he could irrigate his drought-hit crops more cheaply, cleanly and efficiently using a pump fueled by cotton waste.

“Who could believe it’s possible to make a fuel better than diesel from cotton seeds? I didn’t!” laughed Mathoka, crouching down to inspect the watermelons on his 10-acre (four-hectare) shared plot in Ituri village in Kenya’s southeast Kitui county.

“But it works,” he said, walking over to a nearby tree and plucking a large green pawpaw. “Irrigation with this biodiesel water pump has helped me get higher yields, especially during drought periods.”

Mathoka said his earnings had doubled in the two years he has been pumping water using biodiesel, which is both more efficient and 20 shillings ($0.20) per liter cheaper than regular diesel.

cotton waste, biofuel
“There is a mosaic of sustainable energy options in the world. The key issue is testing ideas and approaches in a collaborative fashion,” Sanyal said. Wikimedia Commons

Good for farmer and planet

The biodiesel he is using is not just good news for him, it is also good news for the planet. Unlike most biofuels, which are derived from crops such as maize, sugarcane, soybean, rapeseed and jatropha, it is made from a byproduct of the cotton-making process. That means that as well as being cleaner and cheaper than regular fuel, it is more sustainable than other biofuels because no extra land is needed to produce it.

From Brazil to Indonesia, the rush to cultivate biofuel crops has driven forest communities off their land and pushed farmers to switch from crops-for-food to more profitable crops-for-fuel, exacerbating food shortages.

“Our biodiesel comes from crushing cotton seeds left over as waste after ginning — the process of separating the seeds from raw cotton,” said Taher Zavery, managing director of Zaynagro Industries Ltd, the Kitui-based company producing the biodiesel.

“We started producing and using it to power our cotton ginning factory in 2011. With increased production, we now use it for our trucks, sell it to the United Nations to run some of their buses, and also to local farmers for irrigation.”

More than 1,200 farmers in Kitui have so far invested in biodiesel pumps for irrigation as part of an initiative launched by Zaynagro in 2015, said Zavery.

cotton waste, biofuel
The United Nations has called for emergency aid to help those in need. Pixabay

Dry riverbeds

Climate change is taking a toll across east Africa and increasingly erratic weather is becoming commonplace in countries such as Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia, resulting in lower rainfall. The recurring dry spells are destroying crops and pastures and are starving animals, pushing millions of people in the Horn of Africa to the brink of extreme hunger.

The number of Kenyans in need of food aid in March surged by almost 70% over a period of eight months to 1.1 million, largely because of poor rains, according to government figures. With almost half Kenya’s 47 counties declared to have a serious shortage of rain, humanitarian agencies are warning of increased hunger in the months ahead.

“Only light rainfall is forecast through June … and this is not expected to alleviate drought in affected areas of Kenya and Somalia,” said the Famine Early Warning Systems Network in its latest report. “Well-below-average crop production, poor livestock body conditions, and increased local food prices are anticipated, which will reduce poor households’ access to food.”

In Kitui’s Kyuso area, the signs are already evident. Rivers, water pans and dams are drying up as a result of the prolonged dry spell. Villagers complain of trekking longer distances, sometimes more than 10 km (6 miles), with their donkeys laden with empty jerry cans in search of water. Small-scale farmers, most of whom are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, discuss plans to sell their goats to make ends meet if the harvest is poor.

cotton waste, biofuel
The recurring dry spells are destroying crops and pastures and are starving animals, pushing millions of people in the Horn of Africa to the brink of extreme hunger. Wikimedia Commons

Battling drought with biodiesel

But not all Kitui’s farmers are worried. A small but growing number are shedding their burden of reliance on the weather and investing in irrigation systems powered by Zaynagro’s cotton seed biodiesel through a pay-as-you-go scheme launched more than three years ago.

Neighboring farmers band together to invest in the irrigation system, which includes the biodiesel pump, 12 meters of pipes and 10 liters of biodiesel, at costs starting from 32,000 shillings, depending on the size of the pump.

The farmers make an initial payment, then pay interest-free monthly installments until the total is paid off. They buy the biodiesel to run the pumps from Zaynagro at 80 shillings a liter.

Farmer Alex Babu Kitheka, 39, said the biodiesel pump allowed him to irrigate a larger portion of his 1-acre plot, where he grows a variety of vegetables including maize, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes.

“With a diesel pump, maize yields were lower and I would get 15,000 shillings in three months. With the biodiesel pump, I can earn 45,000 shillings,” said Alex Babu Kitheka, standing near his plot in Ilangilo village, 40 km (25 miles) from Kitui town.

cotton waste, biofuel
Biofuel schemes are promising because they create a circular economy by turning waste to biofuel for profit, said Sanjoy Sanyal. Wikimedia Commons

Circular economy

Other farmers point to the scheme as a major benefit in helping improve their output.

“The installment scheme is good. Most farmers don’t have the money and cannot easily get a loan to buy a pump like this,” said Maurice Kitheka Munyoki, 41, as he stood next to his blue biodiesel pump. “Having a scheme like this helps us a lot. Our yields are good, which means we can pay off the cost of the pump slowly in small amounts, and have money left over to pay the school fees.”

Zaynagro’s initiative is still in its early stages, with few farmers having repaid the full cost of the pumps. But such biofuel schemes are promising because they create a circular economy by turning waste to biofuel for profit, said Sanjoy Sanyal, senior associate for Clean Energy Finance at the World Resources Institute.

ALSO READ: Coffee Farmers in Kenya Turn to Other Crops Because of Drought, Low Prices on Global Market

The simplicity of the model — easy-to-use, robust technology, assured supply of biodiesel combined with a pay-as-you-go scheme — could help electrify rural Africa, he said. “There is a mosaic of sustainable energy options in the world. The key issue is testing ideas and approaches in a collaborative fashion,” Sanyal said.

“Other cotton ginning factories in the region should try and learn from this experiment. Financial institutions should start experimenting with loans to groups of farmers. International donors and investors need to support experimentation.” (VOA)

Next Story

UN: 5.4 Million Face Food Shortage in Somalia Due to Climate-Related Droughts

This latest disaster comes just as Somalis were beginning to recover from the devastating impact of a two-year drought that ended in 2017

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global hunger
Somalis fleeing hunger in their drought-stricken nation walk along the main road leading from the Somalian border to the refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya. VOA

The United Nations Refugee Agency warns an estimated 5.4 million people affected by worsening drought in Somalia will likely face severe food shortages by next month without immediate lifesaving assistance.

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that climate-related droughts are occurring with greater frequency in Somalia. This, it says, is making things worse for the millions of people already displaced and deprived of essential necessities by the country’s chronic instability and conflict.

This latest disaster comes just as Somalis were beginning to recover from the devastating impact of a two-year drought that ended in 2017.

somalia, food shortage, drought
FILE – A Somali family who lost most of their livestock because of severe drought pose for a picture in Wajaale, Somalia, June 2017. (UNHCR/Mustafa Saeed) VOA

That event forced more than a million people to flee their homes in search of food, water and work. The UNHCR reports the current drought has displaced nearly 50,000 people so far this year.

Agency spokesman Babar Baloch says food shortages already are biting. He warns time is running out to help those affected, as the impact of the worsening drought is likely to peak by next month. He said the condition of some 2.2 million people is particularly severe, and they likely will need urgent emergency assistance.

“The risk of death and the dangers that the displaced population or the affected population are facing are real,” he told VOA. “If aid is not provided in time, people could start losing their lives. Let us not forget that in the past years that with efforts of the international community, local authorities and everyone else, famine has been avoided.”

somalia, drought, food shortage
Women who fled drought queue to receive food distributed by local volunteers at a camp for displaced persons in the Daynile neighborhood on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in Somalia, May 18, 2019. VOA

But not every year. In 2011, drought and famine in Somalia killed more than one-quarter of a million people, half of them children under age five.

U.N. agencies agree many lessons have been learned from that tragedy. Baloch says many of the support mechanisms that since have been successfully used to combat such disasters could be quickly reactivated to deal with this crisis.

ALSO READ: Somalia Drought: 2 Million at Risk of Starvation

But he says this can only be done if the money needed to contend with this humanitarian emergency is forthcoming.

Unfortunately, he says the Somali operation remains severely underfunded. He says only 20% of the U.N.’s $710 million appeal for Somali drought relief has been received. (VOA)