To­bacco is the future of flight

CityPress - - Business - MAMELLO MASOTE mamello.masote@city­press.co.za

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.

Ian Cruick­shank

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