To ease your site search, article categories are at bottom of page.

June 29, 2011

Can biofuels save Africa?

by Kyle Niemeyer

Biofuels offer the promise of carbon-neutral fuels to replace conventional fossil fuels, although some studies show that under some conditions, they can cause more climate problems than they solve. Critics also say that biofuel crops such as wheat and corn displace food crops and cause increased food prices.

On the other hand, according to two recent articles in a supplement of Nature, biofuels may be the savior of Africa through spurring agricultural development, job creation, and providing a source of electricity and possible exports.

The first paper presents the case of a small village in Mali, a landlocked country in western Africa, where a collective of farmers replaced their existing cotton crops with jatropha (Jatropha curcas), a plant that produces seed oil that can be converted into biodiesel. The resulting fuel is both being burned to power the previously un-electrified village and for transportation purposes.

The group that has helped organize the switch, Netherlands-based Fuels from Agriculture in Communal Technology (FACT) Foundation, is replicating the project in ten nearby villages and hopes to expand it across Africa in the future. However, while the pilot project is successful enough that the profits from electricity sales cover the operating expenses, the upfront costs are too high—the project could never have gotten started without external and governmental support.

This is a general trend. Most of the investments in African biofuels come from large foreign entities: ten companies invested an estimated $5.7 billion-6.7 billion in Africa, Asia, and South America from 2000-2009.

In particular, Ghana and Zambia saw 1.1 million and 0.6 million hectares of land bought to grow jatropha. However, these investments rarely benefit the local population, even when companies sign contracts to buy crops or strike deals for land for farming/processing jobs. Many companies reneged on contracts, and locals find themselves stuck in long (50 years in one case) leases with either no jobs or no buyers.

In both cases, more government attention may help. By funding local projects or regulating larger-scale industrial biofuel processing, African governments can ensure that their populations benefit from this opportunity.

The second paper tries to make the case that developing biofuels in Africa could actually improve food security, rather than increase prices and displace food crops for land. Well known biofuels based on crops like corn, wheat, and sugar cane (first-generation biofuels) compete with food, but second-generation biofuel crops such as jatropha and grasses can be grown on marginal land (land that can't be used for food crops). Supporting second-generation biofuel crops, the authors say, will build a valuable industry but also improve food security through badly needed agricultural infrastructure development. In addition, some grasses and other biofuel crops can regenerate degraded soil, another major obstacle to agricultural grown.

One issue the authors mention but don't adequately address is that biofuel crops like grasses and agave, which are particularly suited for marginal lands, don't have any well developed, inexpensive processing technology. Oil seeds from crops such as jatropha require relatively simple processing but are more expensive, yield less fuel per unit land, and need higher-quality land that may compete with land needed for food crops.

The development of biofuels in Africa may offer a way out of poverty and hunger, but the reality may never meet the hype. The articles suggest they'll face considerable technological and financial challenges, and they suggest that greater governmental and non-governmental support, funding, and regulation are necessary for the practical growth of biofuels. However, Africa has plenty of unused and underused land, so biofuel crops may just be the way to bring prosperity to more of the continent.

Nature, 2011. DOI: 10.1038/474S018a, 10.1038/474S020a (About DOIs).


Article Categories

AGRA agribusiness agrochemicals agroforestry aid Algeria aloe vera Angola aquaculture banana barley beans beef bees Benin biodiesel biodiversity biof biofuel biosafety biotechnology Botswana Brazil Burkina Faso Burundi CAADP Cameroon capacity building cashew cassava cattle Central African Republic cereals certification CGIAR Chad China CIMMYT climate change cocoa coffee COMESA commercial farming Congo Republic conservation agriculture cotton cow pea dairy desertification development disease diversification DRCongo drought ECOWAS Egypt Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia EU EUREPGAP events/meetings expo exports fa fair trade FAO fertilizer finance fisheries floods flowers food security fruit Gabon Gambia gender issues Ghana GM crops grain green revolution groundnuts Guinea Bissau Guinea Conakry HIV/AIDS honey hoodia horticulture hydroponics ICIPE ICRAF ICRISAT IFAD IITA imports India infrastructure innovation inputs investment irrigation Ivory Coast jatropha kenaf keny Kenya khat land deals land management land reform Lesotho Liberia Libya livestock macadamia Madagascar maiz maize Malawi Mali mango marijuana markets Mauritania Mauritius mechanization millet Morocco Mozambique mushroom Namibia NEPAD Niger Nigeria organic agriculture palm oil pastoralism pea pest control pesticides pineapple plantain policy issues potato poultry processing productivity Project pyrethrum rai rain reforestation research rice rivers rubber Rwanda SADC Sao Tome and Principe seed seeds Senegal sesame Seychelles shea butter Sierra Leone sisal soil erosion soil fertility Somalia sorghum South Africa South Sudan Southern Africa spices standards subsidies Sudan sugar sugar cane sustainable farming Swaziland sweet potato Tanzania tariffs tea tef tobacco Togo tomato trade training Tunisia Uganda UNCTAD urban farming value addition value-addition vanilla vegetables water management weeds West Africa wheat World Bank WTO yam Zambia Zanzibar zero tillage Zimbabwe

  © 2007 Africa News Network design by

Back to TOP