Sierra Leone

An Audience with Sunbird (Sierra Leone)

October 5th

Sunbird Bioenergy is a London based biofuel company interested in producing bioethanol in Sierra Leone. To accomplish this mission Sunbird bought a massive ethanol production plant in Makeni which was built and operated by the Addax Corporation until their recent bankruptcy. Sunbird is in fact a very metaphorical name as this company (like the Phoenix of mythology) is rising from the ashes of the Addax project, and the name Addax still bears a negative connotation for the more politically aware residents of Salone.

The key problem for Sunbird is that Addax built their ethanol plant in the wrong place. The plant uses sugar cane as the feedstock for producing ethanol and in the time of Addax had a massive sugar cane plantation surrounding the site.  However, rather than placing the project in a region suitable for sugarcane farming, Addax chose to build it in the North for shaky political reasons - a plan which never worked out as the expenses and reduced yields caused by growing sugarcane in unsuitable soils made it impossible for Addax to recover costs on their investment. 

When we first visited the Addax plant we met with Sunbird's transitional manager, Andy Gee, who expressed a hopeful vision to transition the plant from a plantation model towards an outgrower program whereby local farmers could produce the feedstock for ethanol production and Sunbird would simply buy it instead of trying to manage a plantation. Andy also hoped to switch the feedstock from sugarcane to Cassava as this would be cheaper to grow in Sierra Leone thus making the fuel cheaper by 20 cents a liter. We hoped on this visit to determine:

-What will be the support system for Ethanol distribution?
-How can we arrange the cassava outgrower program?
-When will the plant be ready to use cassava as an input for ethanol production? 

The great disappointment of this trip to Makeni was that Sunbird had at last found a new owner but this man was not interested in cassava ethanol in the slightest. The Still Lankan entrepreneur now running Sunbird explained to us his plans to improve sugarcane production and to push on using this method. The one upside is that the new owner shares Andy's interest in building a local fuel market and will continue to supply fuel for the ethanol cookstove project. Martin will have to work with him on the long-term to negotiate pricing and distribution.

We were able to leave Sunbird with another 750 liters of free Ethanol which we transported back to Bo via 3 large blue drums and a pickup truck. This should be adequate to provide for the 35 households in Bo which are currently testing stoves for at least 1 month.

Written by Peter Nasielski

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