By Settumba Mukasa and Deogracious Opolot, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University
For decades, women in Apac District in Northern Uganda have produced bioethanol as a means of livelihood. In fact, some women in Chegere, Apac District confess to depending entirely on bioethanol as the source of income. Proceeds from the sale of bioethanol are used to provide basic household needs such as food, medication, soap and sugar, and also to pay for education of their children, some up to university level.
Cassava production in Apac District revolves around five main varieties including both indigenous varieties like Bao and improved varieties. Results from a study by the Cassava Community Action Research Project (Cassava CARP), funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) noted that farmers preferred their own local varieties, especially cultivar Bao, for food while recently released varieties are preferred for processing bioethanol that is sometimes constituted into a local potent drink locally known as waragi or lira-lira. Farmers believe that certain cassava varieties yield more bioethanol than others, and varieties less preferred to be eaten as fresh tubers are the ones used for brewing.
Demand for bioethanol has increased in recent times mainly due to the increased diversity of its uses. Research laboratories use it for preservation of biological specimens, cleaning and as a reagent for laboratory analysis; hospitals as a cleaning agent; schools for sanitary purposes; and brewing companies for making gins and beers. It is also used for making cosmetics, solvents, preparation of essences, and as flavorings in pharmaceutical products. The women of Apac could benefit from this increase in demand.
In recent years, the outbreak of the cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease devastated the production of cassava, the main raw material for bioethanol production. This outbreak almost plunged the rural population into extreme poverty, but was averted through interventions by the National Agricultural Research Organisation Uganda, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries, and other institutions that provided new and high yielding varieties as well as launching programmes for providing planting materials.
The increased production of cassava, however, paused a new challenge of wastage due to rot especially during the rainy season and periods of peak production. Bioethanol production was one of the pathways to absorb this “excess” cassava, but needed to be optimised. Through engagement with women in Apac District, members of the Cassava Community Action Research Project (Cassava CARP) realized the immense potential of this product in elevating the standards of living of these communities. Bioethanol production was thus identified as one of interventions on which the team would focus.
The Cassava CARP team identified a number of challenges affecting the production and profitability of bioethanol. Firstly, the women got little returns for their labour as most consumers of bioethanol are members of the local community who pay low prices. Sometimes their clients even drink on credit and fail to pay. Poor road and transport networks meant that the market for bioethanol remained limited. Secondly, the quality of bioethanol was low. Preliminary proximate analysis of bioethanol sampled from parts of Apac and Kole districts indicated high levels of methanol and other impurities making the product unhealthy for direct human consumption. Thirdly, the process of making cassava bioethanol was found to be long and tedious thus greatly affecting the quantity that could be produced. This was further exacerbated by the use of rudimentary production methods and processing equipment that were characterized by low efficiency. Fourthly, to enhance hydrolysis and fermentation (key reactions in brewing) farmers use a lot of firewood to roast the cassava mash. This put pressure on the environment by way of cutting more trees.