Monday, April 14, 2008


Bio Diesel

Well it seemed all too easy in the end as we drove off with the Binkolo vehicle literally into the sunset, intoxicated with the sweet success of motoring under the power of palm nut oil. Actually the first noticeable difference was the surprising fried fish exhaust smell. Certainly no difference in power and engine noise and the town could still hear the whooping and hollering from the happy band of bio-dieselers being transported on a lap of honour. We had won the “Stanley Cup”.

There is still a way to go before this can be called a new fuel supply for Binkolo or Salone but the practical demonstration has had a huge effect on many and the enthusiasm will hopefully carry this through to a small production stage. Nonetheless the impact of the event was quite momentous and could definitely have long reaching effects. I see as most important, a potential new industry based on a small scale, suitable for village level production. A stable local fuel supply available at a controlled price - actually the cost of production was 44c per litre instead of the retail fossil fuel price at $1.11. Another biggy here is the advantage of an inexpensive alternate cooking fuel instead of using the forests. The soft facts that bio-diesel is a renewable energy and that the emission is carbon neutral is not that important to Saloneans but nonetheless significant I think.

It seems that bio diesel has not been tried yet in Salone. Many have talked about it but the combination of chemicals, equipment availability and experience have prevented others from getting going. Our success was that we eventually had put together a team of differing skill sets as well as a good dose of dogged determination. Actually it was a fun thing to do as well. The NGO installing the solar equipment at the library was also keenly interested in the Binkolo result and they will be a good conduit for others.

The idea was mooted quite a few weeks ago when it became obvious that the Binkolo vehicle uses expensive fuel and my conversation with another VSO volunteer Maria who told me over a Star beer in Freetown that she had produced bio-fuel back home in Philippines that was used to power their vehicle. I didn’t need any more encouragement to move this idea along and Ishmael seized on it immediately. A search of instructional material on the internet revealed a few good sites in particular It became clear that in our poor country the chief hurdles were getting the chemicals and the right equipment. The search was on for the chemicals and after quite a treasure hunt and more than a few bribes we managed to find 4 litres of Methanol and 5 kilos of Potassium Hydroxide (enough to make a good bomb I think). Maria had met a local agricultural machinery manufacturer Mr. Kamara outside Freetown and we paid him a visit one morning on the way to Binkolo. Mr. Kamara’s eyes lit up at the prospect of potential new customers for equipment but he was more than enthusiastic about the bio-fuel story. It was heartwarming to have such a great new team member.

Ismael Bangura is the manager of the Binkolo Growth Centre and he is Mr. Enthusiasm. He quickly had several bags of palm nuts amassed for us to take to Kamara for crushing. Actually the nuts are a by-product of the palm kernels and are normally fed to pigs or used for fertilizer – see an earlier blog story. To get the oil from the nut, a crushing machine is needed that Mr. Kamara at FINIC luckily has in operation at a village, Masumana about 90 miles away. We loaded up the truck and the nuts and spent a great day watching the crusher in action. We ended up with 20 litres of oil and a by product of this process is fed to the pigs.

The last step is the processing of the oil using the chemicals and for this we needed to build a reactor. A meeting with advisory team of Maria, Mr. Kamara and me took place a couple of weeks ago where we sketched out a design based on Maria’s experience and the internet info. I went with Kamara in search of a suitable container and I saw his amazing workshop where old vehicles are taken apart and made into an assortment of agricultural machinery. This was perfect for the job of building something using a mecano type assembly because much of the design was rough, needing a trial and error approach – and there were quite a few trials. Eventually and with much excitement, the finished reactor was hauled up to Binkolo for the big experiment early yesterday morning.

Ishmael meanwhile had assembled the required laboratory equipment of beakers and measuring instruments, strainer and he had even managed to locate an electronic measuring scale with the help of a local high school teacher Mr. Lamin Kargbo. It turned out that Lamin was keen to join the team and will be an important part of the small incubator industry. A large ventilated room was set aside at the Growth Centre to host the big experiment. The reactor was set on a platform and last minute adjustments were made to the equipment needing the blacksmithing skills that Sadiqe a polio victim has been taught. Actually the whole scene was quite amusing. Here we were hoping to compete with the big oil producers in the back yard of a small village and using an untried collection of old car parts, old pipes and taps attached to a used chemical container, all put together in an image downloaded from the internet. Nonetheless we were fuelled by much excitement, with much of the local community looking on, wondering what on earth we were up to.

The various steps were followed with trepidation and fear in particular the handling of the chemicals. The assorted mixture safely poured into the reactor signaled the need for the engine to start the required 1 hour of continuous agitation. There were several moments of breath holding but the process went perfectly – perhaps a few design changes needed but the reactor seemed to do the job. The mixture needed a few hours to settle and so we sat under the mango tree sampling the local palm wine “poyo”, while speculating on the results and the impact of the whole experiment. The more the poyo the greater the speculation but it was fun.

With some confidence spurred on by the effects of the poyo I invited some reporters actually Canadians, Mackay Taggart and Rachel Borlese who happened be working in Makeni for an organization, Journalists for Human Rights. We were having fun and what the hell, even if the results were not what we expected. They thought the story was worthy and having people Kamara and Ishmael Bangura talk glowingly about the idea and process, would reinforce their energy to keep trying.

Much excitement surrounded the various tests that were made. Lamin had some litmus paper and the acidity to our relief was low. A second wash test revealed a good separation of the fuel from the water within 30 seconds all according to the internet information despite the fact that more settling was recommended. One of our problems in the reactor design was that the glycerin wasn’t fluid enough for the plumbing system to handle and so an indelicate and messy decanting of the diesel was required. Nonetheless we had what we thought was diesel fuel and the big moment and risk had to be taken.

All of the fossil fuel was drained from the tank of the Binkolo truck and replaced with the bio diesel. Tension was high and a crowd by this time had gathered around. The ignition initially failed to get the engine going but worried looks and much breath holding were rewarded by the familiar rumble of the engine and then cheers. Wow the feeling was great. Everyone piled into the vehicle and we were off, gingerly at first but then cruising around the streets of Binkolo. What a wonderful feeling. The unsaid feeling of potential freedom, independence and empowerment were not missed on the faces of the local stakeholders, Ishmael Bangura and Kamara.


Missionaries of Charity

Here in Sierra Leone there are no social safety nets and the need for urgent housing and feeding for the destitute is a critical function. Unlike developed countries Government here is neither capable nor able. The Missionaries of Charity offer a really remarkable and heartwarming service under difficult conditions. They are Catholic missionaries who offer service to the poorest of the poor, based on the teachings and example given by the famed Mother Theresa from Calcutta. The Mission in Makeni was started in 1989, well prior to the war and the nuns here maintained the mission throughout, even suffering the death of 4 of their Order.

I have had the opportunity to chat with Sister Rikta on several occasions. Together with other VSO volunteers we put together a Christmas Party, and since then we have chatted about the needs of the Mission. This afternoon we talked again and I took John Keating a fellow volunteer from Ireland. On previous occasions I have been asked about my own beliefs and I have found it wonderfully refreshing to find that my openness about my atheism has not offended and rather we have had a really involved discussion with humour and directly about religion. John today joined in the discussion and we had a great debate.

The Mission in Makeni is quite small and houses 110 including 60 children. These people are really in desperate need and Sister Rikta refers to these people as the dying destitute since they suffer from disease including HIV/AIDS, TB, Polio, whilst some are just seriously wounded. Many of the children are severely malnourished. Sister took us on a tour and the plight of these people is obvious. In addition to the residents, the Sisters also feed about 200 others who simply turn up each day for a meal. I see these visitors each day as I work in the adjacent Makeni City Council building. Many are blind, suffer from mental illness, or are physically disabled. Obviously these people are not cared for. I am unsure if or how they are housed but they arrive in a terrible state and the Sisters carry out a wonderful service.

About two weeks ago I found the Sisters trying to find the mother of a small 10 year old girl along Teko Road. A local hospital had to discharge the disabled girl to the care of the Sisters since the mother just hadn’t turned up. A small piece of paper with an address was the only clue. However the mother could not be found. This is a common story unfortunately. Families just can’t afford to look after the infirm. It is really very sad and the Sisters again perform a wonderful service.

The Mission facility is small and there is not much open space. The Makeni City Council has offered some land now forming part of the Council property so that the facility can expand the open space. The Plan has been approved and I have seen the survey. This is quite heartwarming for a Council dominated by Muslims and with a Muslim Mayor. As I have said on previous blogs I find that the embracing (not just tolerance) of other religions to be a particularly impressive characteristic of Sierra Leone and sets an example for many other parts of the world. The donated land needs to be walled and Sister Rikta has asked me to help with the quotations for costs at about $9,000.

I find that the conviction of the Sisters is the most inspiring aspect of the Mission. They seem to function, as Sister Rikta explains, more on a philosophy of Divine Intervention, that somehow her God will provide. The costs of the Mission seem to be met by charitable people everywhere. It is a magnificent example of how people can come together to help.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?