Potential For Integrating Plant-Based Chemical Industry in Ethiopia

Articles and Analysis

Potential For Integrating Plant-Based Chemical Industry in Ethiopia

By Mathza

December 12, 2010

A number of writers have expressed their surprises at H.E. Ato Abay Tsehaye’s new post as Director General of the Sugar Corporation with the rank of Minister. One of them, Abebe Gellaw, came out with an article (November 20,2010), titled Abay Tsehaye: Minister of Sugar and Salt. Suffice it to say that the title speaks for itself.

The writer and his likes, apparently, knowingly or unknowingly, do not seem to understand the tremendous potential of the sugar and related industries and their crucial present and future role in the development of Ethiopia. These agro-industries are particularly relevant coming at the time of transition from agriculture led to industry led economy. The objective of this writing is to highlight these potentials and thereby show how important H. E. Abay Tehaye’s new post is.

There are four main factors that give ideas about the importance of the sugar (plant-based) industries. These are local and export markets for sugar, use of molasses to produce ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and fertilizer material, use of bagasse for paper pulp making and production of chemicals based on ethanol.

As we all know, the country has been importing sugar to supplement its fast growing demand for sugar. In other words, foreign currency which was badly needed to import machinery, equipment and intermediate industrial and agricultural inputs, was diverted for the import of sugar as well as cement thereby preventing the attainment of GDP rate of growth in excess of the 11% registered in recent years.

Demand for sugar in Ethiopia will continue to increase at high rate as the population increases and as the standard of living of the people improves. This coupled with rising world population and dwindling land availability for sugar cane/beet cultivation worldwide puts Ethiopia in an enviable position. It seems that the sky is the limit for Ethiopia to export sugar. Ethiopia will, therefore, need to exploit this comparative advantage.

Ethanol and fertilizer
In regard to ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and fertilizer material, production of both means saving foreign currency. At present ethanol is used as biofuel constituting 5% in ethanol-gasoline blend in the Addis Ababa area. Technically its share can easily be raised to 10%. There is, therefore, a huge potential demand for ethanol within Ethiopia. Other uses of ethanol include the manufacture of alcoholic drinks and as solvent for paint, varnish and drugs. Excess production, if any, could, of course, find market abroad.

It is apparent that the first two factors by themselves deserve the highest attention if the country is to maximize the benefits accruing from the sugar and related industries. This appears to explain why the new corporation (replacing the old corporation and the formerly and partly managed by the Ethiopian Sugar Development Agency (ESDA)) was recently made to directly report to the Prime Minister. In addition to managing the three existing sugar mills under expansion and the corresponding ethanol units the corporation will have to bring to production the huge mill under construction (?) in the Metehara area and establish three new mills during the current plan (Growth and Transformation) period. The new mills will, of course, incorporate units to convert their molasses to ethanol. These planned developments and the report that 30 professionals are engaged in restructuring the sugar corporation is an indication of the government’s according high priority to the integrated development, management and operation of the sugar plantations, sugar mills and sugar-based industries, possibly including those described below.

Paper pulp from bagasse
The fiber from bagasse is short and therefore does not have enough strength for making pulp products other than paper. It is possible to integrate pulping bagasse and other long-fiber materials to produce the required range of pulp products.

Chemicals based on ethanol
As for production of chemicals from ethanol, the fourth factor, it is possible that the government has planned or has in mind the development of some of them. Ethylene from ethanol is one of them. Ethylene is the basic intermediate for making some of the chemicals that have, up to now, been derived from petroleum that is not locally available so far and usually requiring a huge refinery with multiple stages of separating individual chemicals. The chemicals of interest include polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS). Unlike petroleum-based chemicals, chemicals from sugar (a renewable raw material) are environmentally friendly, i.e. their manufacture does not result in pollution.* PE and PVC seem to be of immediate interest to the country. The manufacture and use of these chemicals are in line with the country’s policy of green development.

Both PE and PVC have diversified uses. They have replaced many traditional products such as wood, metals, containers and other household goods. PE is recyclable and is used as plastic bags, carpets, drink bottles, food jars, etc. Caps and closures for conainers are other products made from PE. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) derivative is used in bottles for various beverages.

The manufacture of PVC requires chlorine. As importing chlorine, an intermediate input, is both expensive and difficult to handle there is no alternative to making it locally from indigenous salt. The co-product caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) already in production in the country would find oulet in the pulp and paper and other industries. This would mean integrating the plant-based chemical industry with the pulp and paper and chlorine-caustic soda industries.

PE and PVC are going to play crucial and fast growing roles in developing countries. Ethiopia with access to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) market should seriously consider going into plant-based chemical industry as soon as possible. Early start will give it a competetive edge vis-a-vis with other COMESA member states.

Brazil is at the forefront in the technological development of polyethylene made entirely from renewable raw materials. Industrial-scale production of ethylene based on plant/sugar, the first in the world, started in September this year. It was recently reported that the Brazilian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Isabel Cristina De Azvedo Heyvart, has expressed keen interest in sharing Brazil’s experience in biofuel development. In this connection, it is very likely that the Ethiopian government would take advantage of the offer. It would, in the first instance, be worthwhile for the government to request technical assistance aimed at assessing the potential for Ethiopia to venture into the production of not only biofuel (ethanol) but also polyethylene followed by PVC as well as related chorine-caustic soda and pulp and paper industries. It is possible that the plant-based technology, if found feasible and profitable, starting with the production of polyethylene would enable Ethiopia to leapfrog most, if not all, African countries.

In conclusion, developing the chemical industries under consideration is complex and very challenging, to say the least. It involves developing project ideas and undertaking pre-feasibility and feasibility studies and engineering designs and construction, operation and marketing. The person to carry out such responsibilities should be highly experienced, possess proven capability and dedication and command the respect of and easy access to relevant officials and institutions. H.E. Abay Tsehaye has, no doubt, such credentials.

* Manufacture of one pound of petroleum-based polyethylene "releases 2.5 kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, whereas the same amount of sugarcane-based PE captures that same amount of the gas."

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