We recently spent a long day out travelling up-country to Makeni, about 175 km north-east of Freetown. We set off early over the nearly complete mountain road to Grafton and so avoided the congestion of central Freetown. The road is good tarmac all the way, which made the journey quite comfortable.
On the way we stopped at the Addax Bio Energy project, just south of Makeni. I had expected to be against the idea of a big company ‘taking land from local people’ and planting monoculture for bio-fuel, having read about palm-oil plantations, derided by environmental groups in other countries. However, I could not fail to be impressed by the investment and vision of this enterprise. In the middle of a scrubby piece of land, on which nothing seemed to be cultivated, there rose an amazing construction of metal girders and pipes. This is the factory at the heart of the project. In simple terms the process is to grow sugar cane and turn it into ethanol. Once the sugar cane has been literally squeezed dry, the bio waste will be fed into a furnace which will drive the turbines to produce electricity. This power will be used to run the plant, but importantly for a country chronically short of electricity, the excess produced will be exported to the National Grid – hopefully in excess of 15 Mwh – currently below 50 Mwh are produced in the whole country.
This project really is in the middle of nowhere: there were no roads and much of the area was cut off altogether during the rainy season. First the company spent a long time negotiating with local land owners in the villages surrounding the site. Land rights are fluid in a country with little regulation or documentation. An aerial survey was conducted to help establish who owned what, and where compensation would be paid. The land required for the sugar cane – eventually 10,000 ha – is spread in between villages: each circle of the crop is irrigated from a centrally pivoting irrigation arm, with water pumped from the adjacent river. The land between is still available to villagers for cultivation. In fact Addax have further projects helping promote better rice growing and teaching local farmers to be more productive, including providing them with agricultural implements. The farmers already benefit by now having access to wider markets via the new roads which Addax have had to build to allow materials to be brought to the site and eventually be the route for ethanol export.
The impressive factory and turbines have all been constructed on site with imported components. There has been no skimping on quality and safety – an extensive fire fighting system is highly visible as all the pipes are painted red. The policy is to employ as much local labour as possible, but in the construction phase it has been necessary to bring in experts. The expatriate staff numbers will now be wound down. There is a policy of employing as many locals as possible, but lack of capacity is proving a problem. They are expecting to fire the turbines any day, with diesel initially, to kick-start the process, but once the first crop is crushed they will provide their own power. This will be an exciting moment for a project which began 6 years ago, has made considerable investment and yet to see any product.
Later in Makeni we spoke to the paramount chief of the area who was very positive about the project. He was satisfied that proper negotiations had taken place and that it was a benefit to the local people. He is working with Addax to try to resolve some of the problems they are having with local agitators, some of whom are former workers sacked for theft, which is a huge problem for the company.
In Makeni we also met with representatives of Street Child, an organisation working with children found working/living on the streets, to try to get them back to school. This is achieved by helping their families develop a means to support themselves and allow the children to complete their studies. In rural areas this also involves building schools and financing teachers. We met at The Clubhouse, a restaurant run to fund the organisation. Street Child also organise the Makeni Marathon, which will be held at the end of May, as a fundraiser and many runners come from overseas for the event. Not quite the New York Marathon, but it’s early days! Since our visit, Street Child held a launch party at the newly opened Radisson hotel in Freetown. The UK government are matching donations to the project £ for £ for the next month.
Before leaving the city we also met with the new Lady Mayor – the first female mayor in the city’s history. She is keen to make her mark and one of her early initiatives has been to launch a clean up the city campaign, which includes strategically placed dustbins and skips for rubbish and ‘clean up day’ on the last Saturday of the month, when no traffic is allowed on the roads for several hours and everyone is tasked with cleaning up their road frontage. We certainly had the impression from driving round the city that this was having an impact.
The drive back provided plenty of examples of efficient packing for a long journey and I leave you with some of them: note the goat on top of one and passengers on the outside of two others!