Biofuel and Africa – urgent issues and knowledge gaps

The recent and dramatic global economic crisis coupled with the drop in oil prices may reduce the pressure on Africa as provider of alternative biofuel energy for rich countries.

Africa as a provider for others is not a new feature. The colonization of Africa secured raw materials and markets for Europe. The global economic stagnation of the 1970s made Africa, with the help of development assistance, a market for the products of industrialized countries. Now, Africa is becoming a provider of alternative energy to confront climate change and enable rich countries to maintain their high level of consumption.

The rush towards biofuel production among foreign investors has created serious coordination   problems for African governments. In many countries biofuel investors have set to work without policies and guidelines for such production. With the onset of the global economic crisis and the dramatic drop in oil prices, the attraction of bioethanol as car fuel has, however,   decreased. The price of bioethanol in some countries is currently even higher than that of petrol, causing consumers to shift away from ethanol.  

Some companies, including from Sweden, are already withdrawing from the sector. The Swedish company SEKAB in late February 2009 decided to sell its bioethanol production activities in Poland and Tanzania and to halt its trading of biofuel E85 (ethanol). Other actors are expected to take over.

The research agenda
The global crisis may well lead to a temporary reduction of pressure on biofuel production in Africa, but as the price of oil is likely to rise again, the biofuel issue will return to the top of the agenda. To be better prepared for this, and to avoid the repetition of the historic scenario, research on biofuel production in Africa could throw light on some of the following issues;

(i)                  What type of biofuel crop/feedstock is best suited for African needs and can at the same time secure export markets and incomes over time?   Can biofuel generation from other crops than sugarcane or those that require well watered lands represent a potential?

(ii)                What scale of production of biofuel can best promote and protect the interests of African smallholders? How can the rights of smallholders to land and water be protected? Can smallholders to a larger extent produce biofuel to generate energy and incomes for their communities? Can smallholder farmers cooperate with large scale production units to create a win-win situation?

(iii)              Can intercropping of biofuel crops with other crops minimize or avoid the reduction in biodiversity, can it help mitigate climate change, or can biofuel crops be designed so that they both generate food and energy, e.g. as the project developed by ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) for sweet sorghum?

What is bioenergy?
Bioenergy is energy produced from biomass including all types of organic matter such as wood, charcoal, energy crops, agricultural and forestry wastes, manure etc. With rising oil prices and climate change bioenergy has emerged as an alternative renewable energy source that can help reduce green house gas emissions.  

There are currently at least five different forms of biofuel, (i) bio-ethanol, made from sugarcane, wheat, cassava, sorghum and maize that are rich on starch, (ii) bio-diesel, made from oil rich seeds including soya, oil palm, jatropha   and algae, (iii) bio-gas produced from the biological breakdown of organic matter including waste from plants and wood, (iv) biomethanol made from ceullulose and (v) bio-hydrogen made from biomass or by converting methane through steam reforming.

The bioenergy forms in focus today and of particular relevance to Africa are bio-ethanol and bio-diesel. These energy forms can be used to fuel car engines, either directly or in some form of blending with other fuels, e.g. petroleum. The emphasis on bioethanol and biodiesel are related to several factors; (i) global techniques are available for their production and the fuels can easily be distributed in existing transport and distribution infrastructure, (ii) they are considered to be renewable energy forms that can substitute non-renewable energy sources, i.e. positive effects on climate change, (iii) they require land areas for their production, and (iv) the energy, given certain preconditions, is considered to be commercially competitive on a global scale.

Today there is no economically viable technology for deriving biofuel from cellulose such as timber and forest waste products. These second generation technologies   are not expected to become competitive until earliest by 2020. The first generation technologies   for generating biofuel and biodiesel have so far been strongly associated with large scale production, for instance in Brazil that has long experience from production of biofuel from sugar cane and soy beans.

With rising oil prices and climate change the renewable character of bioenergy and biofuel has made them increasingly attractive. Heavy subsidization of biofuel production has been provided to farmers in many industrial countries and in the early phase also in Brazil. Some countries have set expansive targets for the use of biofuel. For instance EU has put a target of reaching 10 per cent of renewable fuel, including biofuel, of total consumption by 2020.

Doubts about biofuel
Increasing doubts, however, about the sustainability of biofuel production in terms of bio-diversity and ecological systems, ground water and social and health issues have led the European Environment Agency to ask the EU to suspend its 2020 target. Subsidies for biofuel production in industrialized countries are currently being reduced, making its production in these regions less competitive. The net energy provided by biofuel has been questioned by research employing wider energy concepts e.g. such as “historic energy” which takes into account the ‘work’ of nature in the generation of biofuel. The sustainability of large scale mechanized sugar cane/biofuel production based on large pesticide and fertilizer input has been challenged.

Bioethanol and biodiesel require vast tracts of land in order to generate volumes of energy for export. So far this has been the major focus in Africa. Bioethanol from sugar cane requires access to well watered land while biodiesel from e.g. jatropha can be generated from lower quality land.

Brazil has for decades increased the use of bioethanol in fuelling cars and the export of biofuel has generated huge incomes. For Africa the production of biofuel is in its first phase and the focus is mainly on large scale production for export. The notion is that Africa has vast unused land areas that can be used for biofuel production in order to generate export incomes, employment for rural people and smallholders and profit for foreign investors.

The fundamental question is whether it is wise for Africa to use well watered land to produce sugar cane, land that mostly also has great potential for food production?   Bioethanol from sugar cane highlights the competition for land between food and energy. Such production will require access to large tracts of land which in many African countries are located within village jurisdiction.

In Tanzania most of the land that is suitable for biofuel production belong to around 11 000 villages where smallholder production is the mainstay of rural livelihood. In African countries with community and customary oriented forms of land governance, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Mocambique, access to land for foreign investors is problematic if current laws and regulations are to be followed. Access to water is likewise a problem for large scale sugar cane production. 

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