Thursday, July 20, 2006

So long, paraffin: ethanol fuel in South Africa

On a pavement in Joubert Park in Joburg (how Johannesburg is commonly called), shoppers cluster around Tumelo Ramolefi’s stall exclaiming and asking questions about his products. Ramolefi is not selling the usual inner-city hawker stock of facecloths and socks, or "smileys" (boiled sheep heads) and "runaways" (pigs’ trotters). Instead, it is his display of innovative renewable-energy gadgets that attracts the attention of passers-by, and often turns them into converts to the green-energy cause.

His bestselling items are ethanol gel stoves and lamps, which offer a healthier, safer and more efficient fuel alternative to paraffin or coal fires.

Ethanol gel is a renewable form of energy made by mixing ethanol with a thickening agent and water. The ethanol is extracted through the fermentation and distillation of sugars from sources such as molasses, sugar cane and sweet sorghum or starch crops, like cassava or maize.

Ramolefi sells ethanol gel products and appliances for GreenHeat South Africa, which has branches in Durban, Jo’burg and Cape Town. The stoves and ethanol gel -- produced from sugar cane -- are manufactured in Durban. A two-plate stove sells for R160 (approx. $25 USD) and a lamp for R50 (around $8).

"This stove is number one," said Maria Ndlela, who works in a recycling centre in Joubert Park and has owned her stove for two months. She says it is easy to use and, while paraffin is cheaper than the gel, the gel is more cost-efficient in the long run. Five litres of gel costs about $9.70 and paraffin costs approximately $3.55 for the same amount. "Gel lasts. If you don’t use it too much, five litres of gel takes you a month to use, but five litres of paraffin lasts only three days."

Ndlela says an added attraction of ethanol is that the paraffin price fluctuates. “The price of paraffin is going up and down, up and down with the petrol price,” she said, “So now I’m forgetting about paraffin.”

“What I like about the stove is that it will conquer our unreliable electricity,” said Florah Thulare.

Safety is also a big selling point in favour of ethanol products, particularly for those who use coal or paraffin for heat and cooking. Paraffin stoves, which explode or are easily knocked over, cause fires, and poor ventilation can lead to asphyxiation.

"Coal can actually kill you during the night," says Ramolefi. "In this coming month, we know people are going to die, but there’s no campaign."

Gel fuel burns with a carbon-free flame, so it does not cause respiratory problems such as asthma, which can be caused by emissions from paraffin, coal and wood fuel. The gel also does not produce any smoke or smell.

Gel fuel will not ignite if spilt like gas or paraffin. The gel is non-toxic and thus is not poisonous if swallowed by children. The stoves are designed so they will not fall over if bumped and the stove’s legs allow it to slide when pushed instead of toppling over. Even if an ethanol lamp is overturned, the gel will extinguish the wick.

The stoves are designed for cooking, but about half of his customers buy them as heaters, said Ramolefi.

Ramolefi has sold about 70 stoves in the past eight months and hopes the market will grow and prices will consequently drop, making the stoves more affordable for the poor.



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