How  Winson’s tricks were exposed

Thu, 16 Feb 2017 14:19:06 +0000


By Philip Chirwa

By mid-morning of that sunny  day in  December, 1987, several helicopters had landed at Zambezia Farm in Chieftainess Chiawa’s area near Chirundu. They had brought VIPs who included the first republican president, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, his party Secretary-General, Grey Zulu, prime minister Kebby Musokotwane(now late), Central Committee members, cabinet ministers, all defence chiefs and other high-ranking party and government officials.

The mission: to witness, first hand, the “miraculous” production of diesel from grass by the owner of the farm, the tall, powerfully built Zimbabwean-born American, Eric Owen Winson.

Now, there was this huge machine which was supposed to produce oil from grass. From the publicity earlier given on the project, the presidential entourage expected the  then 61-year-old Winson to feed the machine with grass on one side, then the grass would undergo some chemical process and –akadabra kadabra – diesel would immediately start flowing from the other side – something like putting maize in a grinding mill!

After some formal introductions and a conducted tour of the farm, the moment everybody had been waiting for finally came.

The entourage accordingly gathered around Winson as press photographers and television cameramen jostled for vintage positions from where they could capture the best possible shots of the historic event.

A lot of “rubbish” had been said in some quarters about the project. Today, these “doubting Thomases” would be put to shame as Winson would prove once and for all that a 1920 Italian technology of producing oil from grass  was real and not a figment of his  own imagination.

Then one..two…three! Hmmm, wait a minute! I’m adjusting the machine. Try again: one…two..what’s happening?  Something wrong with the machine, er? Come on, Winson! The whole nation is anxiously waiting for the result of your experiment…

One could see some grass protruding from  the pipe  in the machine, so everything should have been in place to start the demonstration. But then Winson hesitated for a moment and the next thing people noticed was that he was weeping!

For obvious reason, everybody was stunned. Why was their man weeping? Had something gone wrong?

“Nothing to worry about,” Winson’s wife, Karen, came to her husband’s rescue upon noticing that everybody looked worried. “My husband has this strange way of expressing happiness. He is so overjoyed to see this large entourage of VIPs, he can’t help weeping.”

After some time, Winson  managed to mumble something to explain how grass placed in the machine was later transformed into diesel after undergoing some chemical process. He then showed some litres of diesel which could be seen in a glass container fitted into the machine. According to him, the diesel had been produced from ordinary grass.

Soon, the demonstration was over. Afterwards, one Central Committee member was heard telling a colleague: “How can this white man treat us as if we are children?” The colleague just smiled but made no comment; for he realized they were dealing with a very sensitive issue….

Equally unimpressed by Winson’s demonstration, a group of journalists, including me,  decided to stay on a little longer so that they could get to the bottom of this “oil from grass” affair.

We enticed one of the farm workers to tell us the truth about his employer’s machine. Was it  true that it could produce diesel  from grass? If so, had any of the vehicles on the farm used such diesel?

When the worker told them the “truth” about the machine, the shocked pressmen could not help exclaiming: “What!”

For according to the worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, there was not a single drop of diesel which had been produced from grass. “That guy is a pure international crook,” he said. “You saw the way he behaved at the demonstration. He deliberately gave way to tears so that people would not ask him penetrating or embarrassing questions about his funny project and he succeeded.”

The truth of the matter, the worker said, was that the machine which Winson had shown to Dr Kaunda and his entourage was a gasfier which he used to generate electricity on his farm.  “The diesel you saw in the glass container was bought last evening from Chirundu Filling Station,” he told the journalists who shook their heads in utter disbelief.

The worker said that, in fact, Winson had a tough time trying to retain the diesel in the machine as the glass container was apparently not designed to store liquids. Thus, each time he poured the diesel into the machine, it was quickly drained off.

“Mr. Winson really panicked knowing that the president and his entourage would be arriving in the morning. But a clever crook that he is, the man fetched some gasket somewhere, fitted it to the machine and the glass container could hold the diesel this time.”

The worker reckoned that out of the five litres of diesel Winson had bought from Chirundu, only about two litres were retained after the gasket was fitted to the machine. He had placed some grass in a pipe to create an impression that it was part of the grass he had used to produce the diesel in the glass container.

Not surprisingly, soon after the demonstration, Winson abandoned his project, never to return.

Though the government did not pump any money into the Chiawa project, the former president later admitted that local scientists at the then National Council for Scientific Research(NCSR) had expressed reservations about the viability of the scheme.

However, the government went ahead to give Winson all the assistance, including a diplomatic passport, to enable the “inventor” bring all the necessary equipment and facilitate easy travel.

“There was nothing sinister in giving Mr. Winson a diplomatic passport. This is normal and governments do that for various reasons. We wanted that man to help our country at that crucial period.”

Dr Kaunda, who was introduced to Winson by former Agriculture and Water Development Minister in the UNIP government, General Kingsley Chinkuli, said that as the man in charge of the country at the time, he accepted wholly any blame for the Winson saga.

“If we had known he had a bad record, we would have been more careful. But his arrival coincided with the increase in oil prices worldwide. Naturally, we thought this was our chance to get cheap fuel.”

Winson was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1932. His father was a locomotive engine driver until 1945 when he resigned to become a cattle farmer at Figtree just outside Bulawayo.

Young Eric did part of his education in Zimbabwe and left for further studies in Britain in 1960. After completing his education, he trained as a commercial pilot and flew for an oil company in Saudi Arabia and Chad for several years before he resigned to establish his on oil business.

Married to Karen, a naturalized American of South African origin, Winson had three children – Bruce, Charles and Melinda, all of whom did their studies in the United States.  While he was in Zambia, the children spent their holidays at the Chiawa farm.

Winson, who described himself as an American-based ship-owner and oil executive with business connections around the world, claimed that his business was to recover residue oil (called  slop oil) from ships and tank bottoms.  When a ship discharged oil, Winson’s company allegedly cleaned it and recovered the slop oil which was then blended, mixed, water extracted from it and re-exported.

According to him, this was a very profitable business that earned his company thousands of dollars in a month. He claimed that he had business contracts with oil companies in various parts of the globe, including the former Zambia National Energy Corporation, Tanzania Petroleum Corporation and Kenya Finance Company.

He had claimed in one of the interviews with this writer that being a person born and brought up in Africa, he did not think it would be in the interest of his family to settle permanently in the United States. He had always longed to return to Africa because he did not want his children to get “lost” by living outside the continent.

Having finally decided to come back to Africa, the next  question was: which country was he going to go to?  After looking at the various countries in Africa, he came to the conclusion that Zambia would suit him best “because of the peace and stability that has prevailed here since independence.”

When Winson eventually came here in 1983, he was advised by a friend, later identified as Gneral Chinkuli, to approach the late Chief Chiawa for help to get a piece of land for an agricultural project. He was taken to the chief, who raised no objection to the idea since he wanted people to develop the area.

The chief gave him one of the local councilors who went to show him the area where he could do his farming business. The area had never been inhabited before. It was in fact a jungle infested with tsetse flies and a large population of monkeys and rats.

After getting the chief’s approval as well as that of the former Lusaka Rural District Council and the then Ministry of Agriculture and Water Development, the Commissioner of Lands finally gave him title deeds to the farm which comprised 7,000 hectares.

Among Winson’s plans for Chiawa was to give each one of his workers 10 acres of land on which to grow his own crops “because I want them to feel part and parcel of the  farm project.”

Since his intention was to settle in Zambia permanently and, authorities willing, become a Zambian, he was to build his house on top of the nearby hill “where I can view the beauty of this area over a 50km radius.”

He further planned to build an airstrip on the farm so that it would be easy for him to travel between Chiawa and Lusaka and realizing that one of the biggest challenges facing Chiawa at the time was that of transport, he intended to introduce river transport between Chiawa and Kafue. His future plans included building canals on the farm to facilitate irrigation….

FOOTNOTE: Eric Owen Winson is actually no more. He passed away on September 10, 2009. A Google through the internet revealed that Eric died at his home in Dripping Springs, Texas, after several years’ struggle with various blood disorders. He was the only child of Charles Edwin Winson and Roma Attwell Winson.

Part of his obituary reads: “Throughout his life, he(Eric) was involved in numerous humanitarian  projects in various parts of his beloved Africa, from Niger to Zambia, to Tanzania. Eric is survived by his wife Karen,of Dripping Springs, Texas,  and daughter Melinda of Lake Forest, Illinois. He is also survived by 11 grandchildren(Ryan, Ross, Mark, Rick, Countenary, Emma, Ian, Durban, Lillian, Errol and Roman).”

May his soul rest in peace.


The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant who also worked in the Foreign Service as a diplomat in South Africa and Botswana. For comments, sms 0977425827/0967146885 or email:


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