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New strategies to decarbonize transports

Biofuels from castor oil, croton nuts and cotton. This is the future of Eni's biorefining system.

by Silvia Scaramuzza
11 October 2022
9 min read
by Silvia Scaramuzza
11 October 2022
9 min read

Makueni County, Kenya. Sunburnt earth, a small but cosy family home. A little further on, a farm and fields as far as the eye can see. Jany prepares for a day's work. In order to diversify her income, some time ago she introduced a new crop, castor beans. It is an oil-rich, drought-resistant plant that grows fast on degraded soils and does not compete with food production.

The castor beans harvested by Jany are addressed to the first agri-hub in the country and in the entire African continent set up by Eni, a seed collection and pressing plant. It was built in Wote, the county capital. The oil extracted from this agri-hub is processed and then sent to Eni’s bio-refineries, which will transform it into biofuels, an essential element for the decarbonization of transport. As early as the beginning of October 2022, the first cargo of vegetable oil for bio-refining produced by Eni in Kenya left the port of Mombasa bound for the Company's bio-refinery in Gela.

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Eni’s agri-hub, Wote, Makueni County

From Africa to Asia, via Italy

Jany is one of thousands of farmers working with Eni around the world. The company has signed agreements in seven countries - Angola, Benin, Congo, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique and Rwanda - and has started experiments and feasibility studies in other countries - including Italy and Kazakhstan - to develop so-called agri-feedstocks, i.e. plants from which vegetable oils can be extracted. These oils are the raw material needed for the production of biofuels, which will feed the bio-refining system.

“We aim to cover 35% of the supply of our biorefineries by 2025, thanks to the vertical integration of the agri-feedstock and waste&residue chain, which will enable us to secure vegetable oil volumes in a challenging environment in terms of prices, growing energy demand and availability of sustainable oils”, explains Luigi Ciarrocchi, CCUS, Forestry and Agri-Feedstock Director at Eni.

Crops not competing with the food chain

Agri-feedstock projects are in line with the highest European and international standards. Crop development does not affect either traditional food crop production, such as cereals or sugar cane, or forest resources. Castor, croton, brassica, camelina and cotton co-products are among the crops already used.

“All agri-feedstock developed by Eni is certified according to the ISCC - International Sustainability & Carbon Certification sustainability scheme. This will be followed by the low-ILUC certification, which will ensure that agricultural production is at low risk of direct and indirect land-use change” says Federico Grati, Head of Agroenergy Services at Eni. “European directives require that starting from 2023 vegetable oils from agriculture for biofuels do not impact food production and do not cause deforestation. Our goal is therefore clear: we must supply our biorefineries in a sustainable way”, he says.

The land identified for cultivation in these countries are mostly abandoned or very degraded areas, due to phenomena such as desertification, erosion, drought and pollution. Through these projects, the areas are improved, generating a positive impact on farmers, who can have direct and secure income in the long run.

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Farmers planting and harvesting castor beans, Congo

The social impact

The main stakeholders of these projects are the farmers, who directly carry out the production and are affiliated to Eni's system through the delivery of the seeds purchased by the company to the collection centres.

They are women and men living in rural, marginalized areas with low productivity and few economic opportunities. The projects aim to create jobs and provide farmers with access to the market, generating additional income by leveraging the agri-hub network that will extend from Kenya to Congo and other countries.

The business model of the projects is virtuous for both small and large farmers as it will allow for significant growth in jobs, reaching up to one million households by 2030.

In Kenya alone, to date, 25,000 small farmers, to whom we provide technical and operational support during the phases of cultivation, have shown interest in our activities. About 90 people, all locals, will be working in each of the agri-hubs that we are setting up and this will produce a big impact on the country”, says Andrea Saccarello, Development Project Manager of Eni Kenya.

The agri-hubs will also function as training and technical support hubs. This is where feed and bio-fertilisers, derived from the production of agri-feedstock, will be produced. They can be then used to increase livestock and food production.

“From the nuts of the croton trees that grow wild in Kenya, for example, we can make chicken feed and thus food from non-food seeds. This of strategic value at a time in history when there is a serious shortage of this type of product and prices are unsustainable for farmers” explains Federico Grati.

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A farmer harvests croton nuts in Makueni County, Kenya

All these factors together, according to Alberto Piatti, Head of Sustainable Development at Eni, “make it possible for us to promote fair and inclusive social development while committing ourselves to respecting the environment, to achieve what we technically call a just transition”.

“The initiatives”, Piatti says, “involve an evaluation, in socio-economic terms, at the beginning of the activity and monitoring over time to verify the improvement in income capacity that this system introduces into the lives of farmers, with a focus on respect for human rights”.

Kenya and Congo: the key figures of the most advanced projects

The project in Kenya officially started in July 2021 with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the government. The country is one of the most developed economies in sub-Saharan Africa, with the agricultural sector playing a dominant role, contributing 33% of Gross Domestic Product and employing more than half of the total workforce. In this context, the implementation of a vertical integration model in bio-refining linking African agri-hubs to Eni’s bio-refining system proves its effectiveness in fostering local development and the shift towards decarbonized mobility. In October 2022 the first cargo of vegetable oil for bio-refining produced by Eni in Kenya left the port of Mombasa bound for the Gela bio-refinery.

“Just a few months after the agreement, we have supplied castor beans to about 25,000 beneficiaries and started collecting croton and cotton seeds, while one year after the agreement with the institutions, we will start vegetable oil production from the first agri-hub” says Enrico Tavolini, Managing Director of Eni Kenya, pragmatically. “In the first development phase, during which we will build new agri-hubs, we expect to produce around 30,000 tonnes of vegetable oil per year, while in the second phase, when we are fully operational, we aim to reach 200,000 tonnes per year”, Tavolini adds.

“Besides Kenya, we are focusing on castor oil production in the Republic of Congo”, says Mirko Araldi, Managing Director of Eni in Congo. “After signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Republic of Congo last October, we immediately started a pilot phase in the departments of Niari, Pool, Bouenza and Kouilou, which allowed us to lay out a business plan according to which production will start as early as next year. We are starting to build the first agri-hub in Loudima, in the department of Bouenza, with a yield of 30,000 tonnes of vegetable oil per year. It will be a seed-to-oil processing plant, but also a multifunctional centre where local farmers can receive training and technical support. We will continue building more agri-hubs and from 2025 we expect to reach a production of 170,000 tonnes/year in 2026 and 200,000 tonnes/year by 2030, delivering significant economic and social developments for rural communities. Expected impacts include income generation for more than 5,000 households in 2023, rising to 100,000 by 2030. It is a great opportunity for the development and diversification of the country's economy.”

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Castor plantation in Loudima, Bouenza department, Congo

Collection of used cooking oil in Kenya

In Kenya Eni is also collecting used cooking oil (UCO), basically fried oil, involving fast food restaurant chains, restaurants and hotels. “We are raising awareness in the business community of the environmental and health benefits of proper disposal of UCO, promoting a culture of recycling and the development of a value chain that generates income from waste” says Angelo Mongioj, Business Development Manager at Eni Kenya.

“The oil collected in the kitchens is stored in the Eni depot in Nairobi, which is located in close proximity to the railway network”, Mongioj explains. “Once the sufficient quantity has been reached, the containers with the oil will be loaded onto trains and transferred first to the port of Mombasa and then to Italy via ship”.

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Used cooking oil depot (UCO), Kenya

International partnerships in Africa and Italy

At the end of 2021, Eni and BF Group created a joint venture to develop improved seeds for use in biorefining. Experimentation activities take place in Bonifiche Ferraresi's “Open-Air Laboratories” in Sardinia, with the aim of assessing the replicability of production in Italy and in foreign countries where Eni operates, particularly in Africa.

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BF farm in Arborea, Oristano

In October 2021, Eni launched a three-year partnership agreement with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to accelerate the energy transition in fossil fuel-exporting countries by promoting the integration of the African continent into the biofuel supply chain.

The author: Silvia Scaramuzza

Press Officer at Eni. Her activities are focused on sustainability, agribusiness and forestry.