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March 31, 2010

Europeans fish for biofuels in Senegal

Embarking on research for our new Senegal briefings, I wondered whether the mellifluous French language might bring a touch of poetry to the clumsy phraseology of the Millennium Development Goals or the National Adaptation Programmes of Action.

It doesn’t – and I’ll spare you the Gallic tongue-twisters. Instead I invite you to grapple with Le Programme National Biocarburant and La Grande Offensive Agricole pour la Nourriture et l’Abondance. These are the concurrent but somewhat contradictory government policies for rural economic development in Senegal.

The octogenarian president, Abdoulaye Wade, doesn’t go in for incremental strategies. Not for nothing is there a section on the front page of his government’s website reserved for Grands Projets.

Inspired by the Brazilian model, Senegal seized on Biocarburant in 2006 as an escape route from crippling fuel import bills. The biofuels plan envisaged that an average of 1,000 hectares in every rural district would be planted with jatropha.

Such was the scale of this ambition that some analysts forecast that Senegal could become a net exporter of fuel. There was talk of African countries forming a “green OPEC”.

Of course that was at the height of the craze for biofuels for which Senegal was by no means the only addict. Within months commodity markets took fright at the idea of food-for-fuel and prices rocketed. Dakar was convulsed in riots as the poor could no longer afford to eat.

Again influenced by radical ideology emerging from South America, in 2008 President Wade moved on to La Grande Offensive, another incredibly ambitious plan. At that time importing 60% of its food needs, Senegal was to be transformed to self-sufficiency by 2015.

This laudable vision has not been supported by the logical step of snuffing out the jatropha initiative. On the contrary, President Wade retains his missionary zeal. Visiting Brazil less than a year ago, he pronounced that, under the leadership of Senegal, “biofuels are going to provoke a revolution in Africa.”

A UK company, Crest Global Green Energy, has signed a deal with the Senegal government to access 100,000 hectares for production and export of biodiesel. A Norwegian company, Agro-Africa, is eyeing up a staggering 200,000 hectares.

These two contracts alone would accomplish almost the whole of the original 2006 target. Any reassurance that jatropha will be confined to marginal land is surely the thin end of the wedge. If the plant offers a return from poor quality land, I can see no mechanism for preventing farmers from seeking even greater returns at the expense of their food crops.

The Europeans have already devastated Senegal’s fishing grounds. Now they’re threatening to trawl the arable land. They need biodiesel to meet the EU target for 10% of transport fuels to be renewable by 2020.

Senegal is not Brazil. Attempting the trick of food self-sufficiency in parallel with biofuel exports is a risky gamble for a country ranked 166 in the UN Human Development Index.

There’s some comfort that jatropha biodiesel is not yet a fully convincing technology for industrial volume. But if the oil price edges towards $100 a barrel, investment in new research will lurch forward.

Headline writers will be sharpening their pencils: “Hungry Africans donate food aid to thirsty BMWs.”

UN World

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