Tobacco is the future of flight
Earlier this month, aircraft company Boeing, SAA and sustainable jet fuel supplier SkyNRG said they were working with the local tobacco industry to turn tobacco into jet fuel.
This was seen as a perfect opportunity for local tobacco farmers to reduce their reliance on cigarettes, where sales are declining, and move to an industry that could secure their futures.
But the local tobacco industry appears to be unaware of these plans.
SAA is looking at decreasing its emissions through new fuel technologies. Hence the announcement that they would get farmers to produce Solaris – a nicotine-free energy tobacco crop developed in Italy.
Ian Cruickshank, group environmental specialist at SAA, said the goal was to produce 20 million litres of jet fuel by 2017 and at least 400 million litres by the end of 2020.
“We do have a lot of small tobacco farmers involved, and that’s a big part of the project. We will get involved with [large-scale] tobacco farmers provided that they [agree to] develop emerging farmers,” he said.
Francois van der Merwe, chairperson and CEO of the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa, said the organisation had not had any word from SAA about the ground-breaking biofuel project.
But the organisation would be willing to get involved in the project if invited by SAA.
Cruickshank said: “It’s meant to benefit a lot of small-scale farmers and create employment for guys who have small parts of land, or even medium parts of land that they can collect together, and the guys who are struggling to make a go of it. So we would train them in sustainable farming and ensure that what they produce is sustainable and then we will integrate them into the supply chain so that they are suppliers to the project. We will commit to buying their product.”
According to Van der Merwe, South Africa has about 200 commercial tobacco farmers. More than 80% of the world’s production is by small-scale farmers who farm between 30 hectares and 50 hectares of land. The tobacco industry is under constant pressure from authorities and health organisations. It is therefore understood that alternative revenue streams would save it from eventual demise.
Although Van der Merwe said the project may create new revenue streams, he said the tobacco industry wasn’t in trouble.
“Even the World Health Organisation has predicted that smoking will grow and, although consumption of actual cigarettes is going down, the population is growing,” he said. Solaris is not a normal tobacco plant. It is a modified tobacco, and the flowers and fruit, rather than the leaves, are harvested, according to Cruickshank.
He said the project was still in the early stages of being developed but that this project was attractive as it did not make use of food products to produce biofuel.
“[We need to make sure] that whatever we grow is not going to take food out of somebody else’s mouth, or that it’s not going to increase the cost of food,” Cruickshank said, hence the interest in this tobacco plant.
Tobacco has been an important source of income in a number of African countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, other big tobacco producers include Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Kenya. Cruickshank said SAA would look locally first, and may branch out into the region at a later stage.