On August 6, Boeing, South African Airways (SAA) and SkyNRG announced a collaborative effort to work with rural farmers in South Africa to produce biofuel for jets from tobacco plantations. The initiative is part of a greater ambition to cut costs on fuel production while looking to more sustainable alternatives for sources of fuel.
Boeing and the other airline companies will use oil from a specific strain of tobacco plant called Solaris. The strain has no nicotine and instead contains large amounts of oil in its many seeds. The oil will be added to existing forms of jet fuel to act as a supplementary fuel source in the near future, and a potential substitute long term.
The initiative looked at South African farms for economical reasons. Rural farms in South Africa are an excellent source of tobacco already in production, and the locally grown plant will help minimize transportation costs and the impact of carbon emissions. According to the airline companies’ estimates, biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent when compared to conventional fuel production and use.
Rather than establishing new farms or crop sources, the use of existing supply chains in South Africa will help current rural farmers maintain employment as the government seeks to reduce smoking in the country. “By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking,” said Ian Cruickshank, SAA Group Environmental Affairs Specialist, in a company news release.
If the new initiative proves replicable, the companies may increase production of the special tobacco plant elsewhere in China, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa—all regions that have sizable populations of rural farmers. Roughly 80 percent of rural households engage in some form of farm activity, and wages and employment for rural farmers remain low.
Increased biofuel production driven by the initiative could in future years provide employment opportunities for rural populations. Increased employment could in turn increase the earning power of rural farmers and reduce the number of individuals living in extreme poverty.
Poverty reduction from the tobacco venture; however, is a best-case scenario. According to company estimates, production of the biofuel will not be fully operational until 2017, and many rural farmers live in poor regulatory environments. Governments often fail to provide social protections for rural farmers, and there is no guarantee by the companies that local producers will be paid fairly.
The initiative will take several years to reach fruition, so while poverty reduction from the venture is certainly possible, it remains a long and uncertain path.
– Joseph McAdams