The miracle of marabú, Cuba’s wonderful weed
A nuisance that can be used to light barbecues and generate electricity
Jun 1st 2017 | HAVANA
THE peskiest weed in Cuba sprouts a charming flower. Pink and wispy,
with a bushy yellow tail, it looks like a cross between a Chinese
lantern and a Muppet. Marabú, as Cubans call the leguminous tree, covers
2m hectares, about 18% of the country’s territory. It spread unchecked
during the “special period” of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union stopped
subsidising Cuba and farms fell into disuse. Uprooting it is
time-consuming and labour-intensive.
Recently, though, Cubans have begun to view marabú as an asset rather
than an irritant. Since 2009 Cuba has exported 40,000-80,000 tonnes a
year of “artisanal charcoal” made from marabú, which is used for firing
up hookahs in the Middle East and pizza ovens in Italy. That could rise
after the United States in January approved marabú as the first legal
import from Cuba in more than 50 years. There it will compete
head-to-head with mesquite to fuel American barbecues.
Some businessmen have bigger ambitions for marabú. Three tonnes of the
stuff can produce as much electricity as a tonne of fuel oil, a
commodity in short supply. Havana Energy, an Anglo-Chinese firm, has
entered a joint venture with Azcuba, a state-owned company, to build
five generators. Built next to sugar mills, they will be powered by a
mix of marabú and bagasse, the residue of crushed sugar cane. Andrew
Macdonald, Havana Energy’s boss, calls the marabú fields “outdoor mines”.
Heated in a process called “thermal pyrolysis”, marabú can become
“activated carbon”, which is used for such purposes as filtering water
and decaffeinating coffee. In this form, it can fetch prices of up to
$2,400 a tonne, around five times its value as a barbecue fuel.
Donald Trump is considering whether and by how much to reverse the
opening to Cuba that took place under Barack Obama. It is not clear
whether marabú will remain the only item on the United States’ list of
approved imports, whether it will be struck off or whether new products
will be added, such as organic honey, which costs even more per tonne
than activated carbon. Whatever Mr Trump decides, there is demand for
the Muppet-flowered weed. Cuba has the makings of a maraboom.
Source: Maraboom: The miracle of marabú, Cuba’s wonderful weed | The