Africa’s low productivity of existing farming systems, combined with the large stretches of suitable crop- land, is making it the area with the world’s highest energy crop-production potential for the burgeoning global biofuels market and it is critical to the continent’s future to be part of this revolution, says the South African Biofuels Association (Saba).
“For indigenous economic development to be truly sustainable, it must be locally led. Among the most promising of such opportunities is the chance to develop a mature biofuels sector capable of fuelling both Africa’s vehicles and its economy,” says Saba president Andrew Makenete.
He adds that this promise will only be realised if the continent can shape the policies and attract the investment required to help this fledgling industry take root across the continent.
“As we have seen across Southern Africa, the potential benefits to the developing world are substantial. Thirty-eight of the world’s 45 poorest countries are crude-oil importers. However, most of these enjoy all the biomass required to generate renewable fuels. Such an industry would increase income levels, alleviating the crushing grip of poverty. It would also attract increased investment in agriculture, a critical but greatly challenged industry in its own right,” he says.
Makenete emphasises that biofuels can offer some of the world’s poorest countries the opportunity to achieve significant economic gains, while modernising their energy supply and benefiting the broader global community through participation in the fight against global warming. He adds that biofuels offer the promise of cheaper energy made from local crops that are refined by local workers.
“This bioeconomy is the future. It means good jobs and higher incomes and new and reliable crop markets. It also means cleaner, renewable energy and a reduced demand for fossil fuels. “And this could mean all the difference to the people of Africa and the developing world. It is for this reason that Africa urgently needs the assistance of the World Bank and other investors to provide scarce capital to build local biofuels projects. Regrettably, that is not occurring,” he says. This he attri- butes to the World Bank’s unexplained and ambiguous resistance to biofuels.
Conservation organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa agrees that there is a need for investment in agriculture, particularly in Africa, for the purposes of food security. WWF South Africa trade and investment programme manager Peet du Plooy adds that biofuels feed cars and not people, and, as such, have a potentially negative effect on food security. The nongovernmental organisation questions, however, whether industrial agriculture is the best model and biofuels the best market for better agriculture in Africa.
“Bioenergy can only be revolutionary for Africa if it is harvested from sustain- able resources and is used for energising the people of Africa, not European or Korean cars. If the sources are not sustainable, Africa will just be taking a more sophis- ticated route to burning its natural capital out from under it,” says Du Plooy.
World Bank development prospects group lead economist Donald Mitchell estimates that the rush for biofuels contributed an increase of 75% in the price of food. This affected not only maize prices, but also sugar prices, which are also at an all-time high. “This highlights that the World Bank does agree that the large volume of bio- fuels, particularly maize-based ethanol, has distorted the market. While analyses differ on the extent of biofuel’s contribution to recent food price increases, a credible report by Dr Keith Collins for Kraft Foods estimates the contribution at between 25% and 35% to the rise in prices,” says du Plooy.
He adds that agriculture is already the largest consumer of water and that biofuels will require more of it. “As a strategy for tackling climate change, this does not make sense. Yes, we need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions for climate mitigation, but, for adapting to inevitable climate change, we also need to better secure and more efficiently use our water resource,” he says.
Food security and water consumption are not the only concerns. Du Plooy adds that deforestation is a major risk of expansive monoculture crops in tropical or subtro- pical regions. “In Brazil, biofuel uses about 1% of available land and is not a major contribu- tor to deforestation there. Instead, most of the deforestation is related to the conversion of forests to grazing land for beef farming or to small-scale agriculture displaced by large industrial farms. However, this is more the exception than the rule,” says Du Plooy.
He agrees that bioenergy can alleviate poverty if it comes from a sustainable nonfood source, highlighting the Working for Energy programme in South Africa, which uses waste biomass to generate clean, solid or gaseous cooking fuels. He adds that, depending on the techno- logy choice, bioenergy can also produce electricity enabling rural economic activity. However, Du Plooy stresses that liquid biofuel is not as clear cut, as most biofuels are preduced for export and do not directly contribute to the energy needs of under- serviced rural communities.
“If used locally to replace oil imports, which seldom happens, it can improve the resilience of the economy, as in the case of Brazil. “It does have the potential for a signifi- cant number of jobs but, on the other hand, also puts pressure on food prices, particularly if the feedstock competes with staple foods, like maize, for markets and land use,” he says.
Access to Food
South Africa-based biofuels producer First In Spec Biofuels MD Louis Nyiri adds that the relationship between biofuels and access to food is complicated, and part of larger agricultural and trade systems. “As the biofuels market develops around the world, important concerns about access to food become much more acute. “At first glance, shifting corn use from food and animal feed to fuel for gas-guzzling automobiles looks like a step backwards in combating hunger. “But, the food versus fuel debate needs to be placed in a larger context,” he says. He adds that, in tackling hunger and poverty, one must also deal with the larger, structural issues that underlie food and farm systems.
Food and Fuel Debate
“The most important aspect of the food and fuel debate should be whether an agricultural system develops to truly increase current food supplies even for future generations around the world. The biofuels market offers great potential for the industrial agricultural sector,” says Nyiri.
Saba firmly believes that the reality of energy in the twenty-first century is clear and that the resources of today, which are extracted and mined, will be joined, increasingly, by those that are grown and harvested.
Makenete adds that if concerns about sustainability or appropriate land-use policies exist, then Africans would willingly participate in discussions to protect the long-term viability of their unique environment.
“There is, after all, little appetite to repeat the mistakes of the past as we build toward a better future,” he concludes.