Turning food into fuel

Farmers plan to produce ethanol from sweet potatoes

BY NADINE WILSON Observer staff reporter

Monday, December 30, 2013    

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AMIDST the current Government campaign encouraging Jamaicans to eat what they grow, farmers who make up the Christiana Potato Growers Co-operative Association are planning to do much more than that. They intend, they said, to make ethanol from the hybrid sweet potatoes they plan to grow.

President of the group, Soyanni Holness, said the plan to produce ethanol from sweet potatoes is currently in its early phase, but already they have secured the expertise of Canadian scientist Dr Emmanuel Moya, whose team also have similar projects in China and The Philippines that are doing very well.

The group also has as one of its investors, Earl Chapman, chief executive officer of Green Club Inc — a company based in Toronto, Canada that provides eco-friendly solutions for farmers.

Holness, whose group comprises more than 17,000 farmers from St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon, St Ann, and Trelawny, said she is now in the process of carrying out her own testing to see how well the plant will do in Jamaican soil.

"The farmers are so excited that they are asking when is it going to be ready," she said. However, she noted that everything must be fine-tuned before the farmers can jump on.

"This is an opportunity and it is always good to know that persons can come to farmers, and say, 'hey, I want you to produce this', instead of farmers always wondering what is it that I am going to produce next and how am I going to get it to market," she told the Jamaica Observer.

According to Dr Moya, the first country to implement this technology was China where they started out producing 150 litres from one standard potato plant. That country, he said, is currently producing between two and four million litres a month of the ethanol. He said producing ethanol from hybrid sweet potato yields even better results than traditional crops such as sugar cane, corn and soya beans.

"This product is the best, it doesn't require too much fertiliser, it doesn't require too much water," he told a group of farmers from the co-operative recently.

"The main objective of the sweet potato is ethanol, but you can also produce alcohol," he said.

The scientist explained that for continuous production, a farmer or a group of farmers would need at least five acres of land to store, produce and refine the ethanol. He said it generally takes about three months for the potatoes to grow if they are planted in loam (sand composed of even proportions of silt, sand and clay), which is the ideal choice. However, he cautioned that the hybrid sweet potatoes are not for human consumption.

"That's why you will know who is stealing your potato, because the moment they eat that, they will have stomach cramp, because it has lots of gas, it has lots of sugar, and it has lots of carbohydrate. So if you eat that without proper preparation or without removing the gas, you will have lots of gas in your stomach, to the point where you will run to the clinic and ask for help, because you cannot endure the pain," he said.

Chapman believes the project should be best undertaken as a group effort and feels that by working together, members of the co-operative could establish a facility for production. He said they have already met with the Canadian High Commission and representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and have received some positive feedback.

"We have brought this technology to Jamaica so that we can work with, first of all, the farmers and give you a high-end cash crop; and second of all, to find the facility, because if you grow this stuff and cannot process it, it is of no use," he said.

Meanwhile, Holness said that her group is mindful that the right policies would need to be put in place to facilitate this project and there are other things to consider such as how their production would affect the country's light and power provider, the Jamaica Public Service, if approved.

"The challenge is going to be to get the ideal marketplace to say Jamaica is going to produce ethanol. We have to demonstrate that we can," she said.





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