Biodiesel project started in Africa by local institute

Unique tree grows green fuel

By TOM KANE

HONESDALE, PA - The Himalayan Institute began a program in Africa at the end of 2006 that will help change the lives of destitute farmers.

The Biofuel Rural Development Initiative, which was initially started in southern India in 2003, seeks to transform struggling rural communities into havens of health and happiness through the planting and cultivation of a unique tree called the pongamia tree.

“The tree is drought-resistant and insect-resistant, with a deep tap root that grows down to great depths where water exists even in dessert-like terrains,” said Matthew Douzart of the Himalayan Institute. “It flourishes in the most desolate sections of India and, now we discover, in parts of Africa, specifically in Uganda and in Cameroon.”

But that’s not all.

“The seeds that are produced by the trees can be pressed into an oil that will create a biodiesel fuel that can be used to fuel machines and even cars and trucks,” Douzart said. Not only that, the seedcake remaining after the pressing process can be used as cattle feed, organic fertilizer for crops and organic pesticides.

The Himalayan Institute was first established in the United States in Illinois in 1970. In conjunction with an Indian company called Roshini Biotech from the southern India state of Andhra Pradesh, it is training farmers in the two African countries to plant and cultivate the tree and market its products.

“The role of the institute is to educate, initiate, support and then get out of the way, empowering the farmers to do the rest,” Douzart said.

The director of the project, Ishan Tigunait, who is currently in Cameroon, recently announced that the government has identified 245,000 acres for the planting of the trees.

Tigunait is the son of the institute’s spiritual leader, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, who started the project in Andhra Pradesh, where, as in Africa, poverty conditions plagued local farmers.

How it all started

The biodiesel program was begun and developed in southern India in 2003 where staff of the institute learned about the pongamia tree, its cultivation and its potential to transform the lives of a rural farm community.

Since 2003, about 20 million trees have been planted on 250,000 acres in Andhra Pradesh . During that time, over 45,000 destitute farmers have been successfully working with the tree and its products, Douzart said.

All the land was either owned by small farmers or was community land assigned to marginal farmers under the guidance of local village councils.

Education is a vital part of the assistance given to the farmers in India with the formation of community centers where farmers and their families can be trained and receive other humanitarian services, like health care and counseling.

“The goals of the project are social regeneration and rural empowerment,” Douzart said. “What the villagers needed was a sustainable way to earn their living and a means of renewing their self-confidence and their traditional community bonds.”

While the farmers were waiting for the trees to mature-which takes about three years-the Indian government contributed $30 million for low-interest loans and rice for them to survive, he said.

The move to Africa

Friends urged the institute to consider starting a project in Africa since pressures on the environment in that hemisphere are increasing rapidly, and poverty is widespread. The Sahara Desert is creeping south at a rapid pace, the snows are melting on Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria is showing signs of drying up.

The first nation to be visited was Uganda where physical and environmental conditions were markedly harsh. Due to such conditions as growing desertification and the lack of infrastructure, the biodiesel project, which was started there a year ago, is growing very slowly.

In Cameroon, however, conditions were better.

“When we were invited into Cameroon this past July by two Cameroon college professors who are teaching in two American universities, we discovered a section of the country called Kumbo where the coffee industry once flourished but is in serious decline due to an international glut of coffee,” Douzart said. “Unlike in Uganda, we were overjoyed to find that in Kumbo there was an already existing infrastructure-like electricity, water, a processing plant and social groups of farmers that could easily be converted to the production of the pongamia tree and its biodiesel fuel.”

Cameroon is located on the western coast at the place where the “head” of Africa meets the “neck.”

The institute, with the Roshini Biotech Company, is beginning to transport the trees into the country and train the farmers.

Meanwhile, supporters of the project in England found markets for the small coffee crop that is still grown there and the farmers have begun getting a fair price for the coffee.

“This will help to tide them over until the trees are mature and ready to be harvested,” Douzart said.

The tree plantings are so successful that some are suggesting that the trees be grown all the way across the continent so as to stop the Sahara from creeping south.

“This is something we are not ready to do anytime soon, but it’s not impossible,” he said.

Locally, the Honesdale Rotary Club donated $1,000 to the Cameroon project.

For more information on the project, visit www.himalayaninstitute.org or call 570/253-5551. The email address is info@himalayaninstitute.org.

Contributed photo
A boy waters a young pongamia tree growing in a nursery in India, in a project run by the Himalayan Institute. (Click for larger version)