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March 24, 2008

African biofuels debate must encompass more than just agricultural issues

The need to look beyond an agricultural paradigm and embrace a more holistic view of biofuels was one of the points highlighted by Southern African Biofuels Association (Saba) president Andrew Makenete at the third annual biofuels conference last week.

Makenete commented that the biofuels debate had been too narrow, and that the solutions had focused mainly on the role of farmers, without taking into account all the potential producers. He said he believed that this mindset and framework needed to be challenged.

Makenete stressed that there had not been a proper biofuels framework in Africa. He said that Africa, unlike the rest of the world, wanted to “bite big problems with big solutions,” rather than tackling the biofuels issues incrementally. He also noted that, while the level of awareness of biofuels in Africa had generally improved, the bio- fuels lobby had not been as successful as was hoped in promoting biofuels growth in Africa.

“The lobbyists need [not only] to promote, but also to work on market development. Biofuels development will be so much harder if South Africa does not assist in promoting biofuels properly,” he said.

Makenete stressed the need to build new biofuels alliances that were inclusive of all relevant stakeholders and groups, such as trade unions, farmers’ unions, and consumer groups, so that all relevant interests could be brought to the party. He added that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) needed to have consensus going forward, so that business could view the SADC as one entity, rather than as competing countries.

Further, Makenete said that more could still be done strategically at a regional level.

“We need to be joint partners in the SADC going forward, and ensure that the biofuels industry in Southern Africa does not pre- sent a suboptimal or speculative investment opportunity. We all need to speak the same language,” he said.

Makenete noted that, outside Africa, Brazil and the US had led the way in biofuels production. The US had focused heavily on maize, and had overtaken Brazil in ethanol production. The European Union (EU) had hit a ceiling, he said, and most nations would miss their target of 5% growth by 2008 by a significant margin. He said that China had developed biofuels remarkably, but was constrained by a lack of land and natural resources, and was more likely to play the role of buyer, rather than producer.

Makenete said that, in the bio- fuels realm, developed societies were concerned about various issues, such as energy security, climate change, opportunities for markets for agricultural produce, clean and renewable energies, and renewable raw materials.

Developed countries also viewed biofuels development in different ways, he said. The US had surged ahead with its biofuels framework, mainly concerning itself with whether or not biofuels production was profitable for the country’s farmers, while the EU had adopted a more pragmatic approach.

He believed that, in the SADC region, in general, there needed to be more action and less talk with regard to biofuels. He said that South Africa needed to “step up to the plate” in the region . For example, he said, Mozambique had plenty of land available for biofuels production.

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