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January 30, 2010

Hunger looms as farmers abandon food crops for biofuel crops in Uganda

by Francis Kagolo

The boda-boda journey to Kimina village in Pakanyi sub-county, Masindi, is distressing. The road is narrow, pot-holed and dusty. Yet after an hour of a draining ride, we “wake” up to the shock of a large plantation of ebiti (unknown trees), as residents here refer to them. The “trees” are of jatropha, a plant whose non-edible seeds can be harvested to make bio-diesel.

From a distance, everything looks green. It is a beautiful plantation owned by Joseph Kasigwa, a father of four. He says it was abject poverty and lack of school fees for his children that forced him into growing the crop. Kasigwa now foresees big earnings once harvests start.

Despite the flourishing jatropha, Kasigwa will have to spend much of his income buying food for his family because he has foregone food production for the bio-diesel crop. And he is not alone; there are thousands of farmers in Masindi and neighbouring districts like Hoima and Lira, who have either abandoned or reduced on food crop production in favour of jatropha.

In the past, the crop was used to demarcate people’s plots especially in Buganda, with no commercial potential. But the global search for clean renewable energy has changed all that. A number of countries across the world now grow the crop to produce power in order to lessen dependence on fossil fuels. It is hoped that the use of biofuel will help in the reduction of greenhouse gas emission, provide a renewable and sustainable energy source, and increase income for the rural poor, especially in developing countries.

According to Andrew Ndawula, the commissioner for renewable energy in the ministry of energy and mineral development, diesel from jatropha seeds is good for powering vehicles. It does not produce toxic gases when used.

When a plan for large scale production of agrofuels was first unveiled in 2006, hope of overcoming energy deficiencies in the country swayed even the most senior government officials. Since then, there has been a steady move towards massive bio-diesel production in the country, with the Government using incentives like tax holidays to woo foreign investors into the sector. Nexus Biodiel has planted over 400 hectares of jatropha in Isimba, Masindi. There are four other companies yet to start production of biodiesel, nearly from the same crop.

Farmers in Masindi, Hoima and Lira are reportedly taking to the crop with enthusiasm. Nexus alone boasts of more than 2,000 registered outgrowers in the three districts, according to Edward Mugenyi, the field manager. Only 36 of these have planted over 190 acres of jatropha. Jatropha production also exists in Mukono and Luweero districts among others.

Other crops being fronted for biodiesel include castor (nsogasoga) and candlenut (kabakanjagala) seed. African Power Initiatives (API) has planted about 2,000 acres of caster oil and jatropha in Namalu, Karamoja, officials said last year. The companies will start production of diesel this year.

Ndawula says the goal is to increase the use of modern renewable energy from the current 4% to 16% of the total energy consumed in the country by 2017. The ministry adds that biodiesel is needed to meet the increasing energy demand in the country which it predicts to reach 1,809MWH in 2025. But more importantly, the Government wants to reduce on fossil fuel imports and thinks biodiesels can be a blessing to rural communities.

The programme has provided the rural population with new alternative cash crops, and thus additional employment. However, the move has sparked off criticism. Although environmentalists and food rights activists admit that curbing fuel shortages is crucial for development, they warn that the biofuel industry is laced with worse consequences especially on food security.

Geofrey Kamese, the programme officer for energy and climate change at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), a local NGO, says biofuel production will more likely worsen food shortages, hamper poverty alleviation efforts and eventually deter Uganda’s ability to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Low food production
He says, producing biofuel demands a lot of land at the expense of food production. Robert Nabubolo and Godfrey Bukomba, managers of the Nexus jatropha plantation in Masindi, say an acre of land can accomodate only about 430 trees.

Each tree produces five kilograms of seed a year, which generate just one litre of diesel. This means only 430 litres of fuel can be produced from an acre of land each year. This is just enough for one car, yet Uganda has over 600,000 vehicles, according to statistics from the works ministry. To move 2,000 of these vehicles, for instance, millions of hectares of fertile land must be put under jatropha and not food production.

Mugenyi says it is possible to intercrop jatropha with some crops like groundnuts and beans to fight hunger, but most farmers neglect this advice. He also admits that intercropping can be done until jatropha is three years old. Beyond that, it would have acquired branches and thus unfit for intercropping.

Many other biofuel feedstocks like soybeans, corn and sugarcane are also key sources of food for people.
“It does not make sense to starve our people because a few rich ones want fuel to drive their cars,” Kamese remarks. “Converting food crops into fuel will mean more and more people stay hungry and die.”

It is against this background that activists warn the Government to tread carefully. “Biofuels are coming to compete for the small land that was used to grow food crops. In order to produce an extra litre of diesel, we shall have to convert more land from food crops to produce biofuels as more people go hungry,” Kamese warns.

In the process, therefore, a lot of rain forests have to be cut to create ample land for jatropha plantations, as the case has been in some parts of Masindi near Murchison Falls National Park. But this comes with disastrous environmental impacts, especially now that the country, and the rest of the world, is already suffering from the brunt of climate change — in form of prolonged droughts and change in rainfall seasons, which has failed crops and led to famine that killed dozens of people mainly in the East last year.

“The monoculture production system as of jatropha involves excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This affects soil fertility and destroys biodiversity, causing both environmental degredation and food insecurity,” NAPE said in a recent publication. It believes biofuel production would increase greenhouse gas emissions and intensify rather than mitigate global warming.

Experts views
A 2007 study by African Biodiversity Network (ABN) also indicates that current biofuel projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Benin could lead to “environmental and humanitarian disaster on the continent.”
Experts also envisage food prices rising as result of farmers taking on biofuels. In a press release, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) attributed the high food prices in 2008 partly to the “competition (for land) between biofuels and food.” The urban poor, who make up 10% of Ugandan’s urban population, will be hit hardest by the high food prices and will have to sleep on empty stomachs for more days, experts say.

Stanlake Samkange, the WFP country director, said in an exclusive interview that although jatropha was a cash crop, there was need to balance it with food production. “Biofuels is not a bad move par se, but we want to be assured that food security will be guaranteed,” he noted.

Kamese thinks Uganda’s potential to benefit from the biofuels is limited. “Our fear is that this is being driven by the rich countries by promising to buy most of the produce. We shall produce for foreign markets as our people bear the burden of feeding their families,” he said.


Since 1930, countries have proposed different approaches to the soaring petroleum fuel prices and shortages; but biodiesels have picked up so rapidly that they seem to dominate the global debate on renewable energy today.

Biofuel production based on agricultural commodities increased more than threefold from 2000 to 2007 globally. Available information shows that in 2005, for instance, a total of 994 million gallons or 3,762 million litres of biodiesel were produced across the world. Germany alone produced 1,921 million litres that year mainly from rape seed. Currently, Brazil is said to be the leading producer of biofuels, mostly from ethanol and crops like soybeans and jatropha. In the US, biodiesel is produced mainly from corn. Other countries include Austria, France, UK, and Italy.

But fears of biofuels exacerbating hunger have reportedly forced China to be cautious when it comes to this new source of energy. With 20% of the world’s population to feed, diverting food crops to fuel production has been a deeply controversial issue in China. In 2007, for instance, China’s State Council halted the use of grain crops for ethanol production.

Biofuels promoters promise a source of environment-friendly energy that would also be a boon to the world’s farmers. But skeptics also say biofuel production will threaten food supplies to the poor and fail to achieve the environmental benefits claimed.

In  apparent concern at the repercussions biofuels had on food security, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 2008 asked nations to rethink the move towards widespread biodiesel production.

FAO also came up with a number of guidelines necessary to ensure environmentally, economically and socially sustainable biofuel production. It said national policies must protect the poor and food-insecure; ensure agricultural, rural development, and environmental sustainability. FAO also urged the international system to be supportive of sustainable biofuel development.

Besides the caution from the WFP representative who speaks from a hindsight, having spent billions of dollars providing food relief to hunger-stricken areas like Karamoja, there are specific challenges that need to be addressed in Uganda.

Top on the agenda, Kamese says, is the quick enactment of a national policy governing the biofuel industry. “If a person has 10 acres of land, how much of it must he put to growing jatropha or other fuel crops? A carefully scrutunised policy should guide the local communities on such issues,” he says.

The policy, he adds, is also needed to protect people with insecure land tenure systems from being deprived of the opportunity of growing food crops. And there is need to control prices such that even those engaged in biofuel production can afford to buy food.

Samakange says the Government should look at the overall balancing of food security with biofuels by encouraging farmers not to abandon food crops completely.

Other environmentalists say it would be prudent to explore several renewable energy sources for curbing the energy crisis other than emphasising biofuels. One way would be by promoting the use of solar and wind energy. Kamese also believes that small holder energy projects would be a better option for local communities than large scale biofuel plantations.

But in order to benefit the poor and make viable economic and environmental contributions, experts believe biofuel technology needs further improvement, investment and policies facilitating better agricultural innovation. Serious caution is sounded against Uganda turning food crops like maize into fuel.

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