People-Focused Biofuels Development in Africa

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with 1 Comment

Fragilecologies Archives
13 November 2008

By Dr. Michael H. Glantz and Dr. Tsegay Wolde-Georgis

pen6African governments are continuing to join the worldwide rush to develop biofuels in response to record oil prices. Their leaders perceive opportunities for their country’s energy security and agricultural revitalization. They also want to transform the source of rural energy supply from biomass away from dung and wood toward biofuels. Some countries plan to benefit from biofuels through clean development mechanisms (CDMs) for climate change mitigation (e.g., reducing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas).

As net importers of petroleum, economies of African countries have often been impacted by high oil prices. African countries also want to benefit from the trade boom expected to result from the mandated use of biofuels in the industrialized countries. The high level of African interest in biofuels was manifested when the African Union and Brazil organized a high-level seminar on biofuels in 2007. Countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa have already started selling ethanol-added gasoline in response to high gasoline prices.

Some biofuels enthusiasts, such as the president of Senegal, are even advocating the creation of a Green OPEC to better coordinate biofuels production in Africa. African governments are creating national biofuels committees and forums to provide guidance to biofuels investors, mostly foreigners. Many governments are providing incentives to biofuels investors, encouraging them to create hundreds of thousands of hectares of large commercial farms to plant feedstocks. There is an assumption that there is plenty of idle land in Africa, and it can be used for biofuel production.

Some African policy makers believe that biofuels will economically benefit the agricultural sector and villages through increased income and energy security. However, biofuels investments so far are based on large-scale commercial plantations. Many farms are also being established with little to no attention on environmental impacts, despite historical domination of African farming by small peasant farms. The biofuels entrepreneurs prefer large commercial farms to assure a reliable supply of feedstocks to refineries. The overarching strategy of the biofuels entrepreneurs is to create a vertically integrated production chain that bypasses the small African farmers.

However, a national biofuels strategy based on large commercial farms might not lead to a realization of rural development, energy security, and increased rural income. This strategy might to landlessness, increase rural poverty, and transform African farmers from being small holders to being wage earners on the new biofuels commercial farms.

The large plantations-based paradigm of biofuels development would lead to competition with subsistence farmers and pastoralists for land and water. Some of the colonial and post-colonial land-related rural conflicts during the development of National Parks in Africa might re-emerge, unless precautions are taken to protect the interests and rights of poor farmers and nomads. Considerable care must be taken, so that new “land grabs” do not lead to increased poverty in rural areas.

African countries still have time to retool the implementation of their biofuels strategies. Fortunately, many of these investments are in preliminary stages and actions can still be taken if the willingness exists to reduce unintended consequences to the poor.

Farmers can be made the drivers of responsible biofuels development by making them the growers of feedstocks such as castor and jatrophia alongside their food crops. [ARE THESE BOTH BIOFUELS AND NOT FOOD CROPS? THEN THEY SHOULD NOT BE CALLED FEEDSTOCKS] Castor is very easy to grow, and jatrophia can be cultivated to rehabilitate degraded environments without taking fertile arable land away from food crops. Farmers can process the beans into biodiesel oil locally in their villages to replace imported kerosene. They can even use biodiesel to produce electricity and sell its surplus oil.

This alternative paradigm, small in scale and village-based, is being experimentally conducted in Mali. Malian farmers had traditionally fenced their crops and gardens with jatrophia, as it is not edible by animals or humans. Jatrophia tolerates drought and poor soil and can live for more than 40 years. The Malian government has been supportive of the work of some NGOs and entrepreneurs who wanted to create a biofuels industry that is village-centered and benefits women and young people. According to the New York Times (September 9, 2007??), unlike those who grow feedstocks on huge plantations, the Malian experiment is based on several small scale projects that have the objective of solving village level energy and income problems. The Malian experiment is designed to benefit small farmers in contrast to the experience in other African countries.

African countries can learn from this unique example about the potential of biofuels to provide energy and income security to the rural people. The only fear is a potential land-use shift to plant biofuels that might undermine food security, if farmers in general find biofuels production more profitable than food crops. However, such threat might be minimized by introducing pro-food production land-use policies that discourage biofuels production over a certain amount of land. The experience in Mali is a “teachable moment” that serves to strengthen the goals of African energy independence that is equitable and characterized by a win-win-win situation to all sectors of society, the environment, and the government.

The scramble to grab large tracts of land for biofuels production by local and international biofuels investors in Africa will have unintended socioeconomic consequences, such as landlessness, environmental degradation, conflict, increased rural poverty, and biodiversity.

Even though biofuels will be produced on large commercial farms, African policy makers must conduct open transparent discussions on the implementation of their biofuels strategies and their impacts. They need to investigate the challenges, opportunities, and weaknesses of biofuels development and base the measure of their success on the impacts to the rural poor. When biofuels development contributes to rural energy and food security through increased income, it will increase Africa’s resilience to adapt to the impacts of climate change and other climate-related hazards.


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  1. This is great and I imagine the numerr would be 100% in support IF there was the finacial support (federal, state, local, private, etc) and leadership for these alternatives. Unfortonately, rural MN (Minnesota) does not have the leadership or money to develop a succesful alternative energy program right now. We need to start thinking long-term.

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