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The felling of trees for firewood has been a problem in Nigeria for decades. Experts say that the areas facing desertification are not even spared this malaise.

They note that the few trees in areas where the desert is fast encroaching, are being hewn by desperate housewives to cook their family meals.

However, a cheap and readily available alternative to firewood and all other cooking fuels, seems to have come at last.

The hope – “cassakero”— or cassava kerosene, is a product of the federal government’s renewed interest in the liberalisation of the nation’s downstream oil sector.

The fear that the liberalisation would lead to increase in the prices of petroleum products has opened new vistas.

The Director of the New Economic Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) on Africa Cassava Initiative, Mr Boma Anga said a national policy by the federal government to introduce fuel produced from cassava is being finalised.

Anga said during a seminar organised for farmers, widows and the needy by a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)– Social Welfare for Widows, the Needy and Unemployed – that this would be soothing to all.

He said that with the implementation of such a policy, “all the errors of the oil industry will be corrected, because in the new industry, farmers will be champions and oil merchants”.

According to Anga, a tonne of cassava will produce 160 to 180 litres of “cassakero” which will sell at N30 per litre.

”Apart from the “Cassakero” that will come out of the refineries, other bye-products of this initiative are livestock feed, garri and others that will generate electricity,” he said. He said that the initial target would be to establish 1,000 small refineries to produce 400,000 liters of the product over the next one year.

He added that the plan was to increase production to four million litres within four years. Anga, who was the Cordinator of the Presidential Cassava Initiative during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, explained that the refineries, which would be established in the rural areas, would each produce 400 litres of “cassakero” per day.

He said that a special trust fund had been established to offer a reprieve to investors who would want to go into the business.

“The cost of establishing one refinery is N15 million; but those who do not have the complete capital may contribute 15 per cent of the sum, which is N1.8 million and the rest will be drawn from the fund,” he said.

He said that the loan, which would be without collateral, was aimed at affording rural communities the opportunity to participate in the initiative.

Anga said that for a start, every refinery that produces 400 liters of “cassakero”, would support the needs of 400 homes by giving out free Cassakero stoves to them.

”To produce “cassakero”, you need three kinds of business people: farmers, who will be attached to the refineries as contractors; businessmen who will focus on production; and marketers,” he said.

He said that each refinery would give long-term contracts to about 50 farmers, adding that a minimum of N10 million would be given to each farmer who would participate in the “Cassakero” refining programme.

”The farmer only needs to contribute 6 per cent of the sum, because the aim is to encourage the production of cassava,” he said.

He urged farmers to take advantage of the deregulation of the petroleum sector to key into cassava refining, which he described as a goldmine.

The President and founder of the NGO, Mrs Ngozi Kolawale said that her interest in organising the seminar in the state was to empower widows and other less privileged persons through the new agricultural and economic policy. Kolawale commended the wife of the state governor, Mrs Odochi Orji for partnering with the NGO to ensure that the event was massively attended and urged government to come up with policies that would improve the lot of widows.

She said that the NGO had groomed 2,500 farmers who would participate in the “cassakero” production programme in the state.

According to her, the 2,500 farmers would form 250 groups of 10 members each and belong to a Social Welfare Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society under the umbrella of the NGO.

Kolawale said that each member of the Cooperative society would, after due registration, be mobilised by a Mechanised Agriculture Micro Credit Investment Scheme to produce cassava in large quantity.

”The money will be given to the farmers in form of loans, and the farmers would after each farming season, sell the cassava back to the managers of this scheme for onward delivery to the refineries.

”The supply will continue until the loan is exhausted, after which subsequent supplies will form part of the farmers gains,” she said.

Though Kolawale noted that availability of land could be a hindrance to the project, she expressed optimism that with the interest so far shown by the state government, that challenge would be overcome.

She said that the NGO would also negotiate with landowners to enable farmers have access to land on rent or lease.

”We are going to work closely with research institutes to ensure that incentives, in form of improved cassava stems, will be provided for them,” she said.

The Secretary, Cassava Growers Association of Nigeria, Umuahia-North Chapter, Mr Mike Nwokenta, said that the farmers in the state have the capacity to produce enough to serve the purpose.

”If the government will provide us with enough land for the project, we will live up to expectation,” he said.

He noted that there were plots of land that had been abandoned for many years, adding that they needed such plots of land and modern agricultural equipment for the assignment.

Nwokenta explained that the mass production of cassava for the refineries would not lead to a hike in the price of garri.

Experts in agriculture say the refining of “cassakero” could only increase the quantity of garri available in the market.

This, they explain, is because “cassakero” is mainly the gas released by fermenting cassava, though now handled with technological expertise.

They say the refining of cassakero is not only viable but seems destined to change the face of rural Nigeria and reverse rural-urban migration.

They also note that cessation of tree felling, since cassakero would have replaced firewood, would help protect the environment, assist efforts at halting desertification and slow down global warming.

Above all, the rural farmer, seen as exploited and largely abandoned, is to be the main beneficiary of the “cassakero” initiative. (NANFeatures)

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