Biofuels: benefits and risks for developing countries

Sorghum, a source of bioethanol Copyright: Flickr/wiccked

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Biofuels offer huge potential, but pose challenges best countered with strong and coherent development policies, says S. Arungu-Olende.

Global production of biofuels is growing steadily and will continue to do so. Biofuels offer greater energy security, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates, rural development, better vehicle performance, and reduced demand for petroleum.

But they also raise pressing issues that need addressing before biofuels become widespread around the world, and in Africa in particular. These relate to land requirements and availability, policies, knowledge, standards, awareness, participation and investment.

Africa has relatively little biofuel development, except in South Africa, and more information on the few activities that are underway is urgently needed.

Across the world, but particularly in Africa, policymakers and researchers need to:

  • better understand how biomass production affects food production; and
  • identify suitable feedstock for biofuels, and research the most appropriate production and processing procedures, environmental impacts and the potential for domestic, regional and international trade in biofuels.

This article focuses on liquid biofuels— bioethanol and biodiesel. Of the two, bioethanol is currently the bigger industry. Of the estimated 130 million barrels of biofuels produced worldwide in 2004, 95 million barrels came from bioethanol.


Commercial bioethanol is mostly produced from sugarcane, sugar beet and corn. Other sources are sweet stem sorghum and cassava, and cellulosic material such as grasses, trees and various waste products from crops, wood processing and municipal solid wastes.

Bioethanol can be blended with conventional fuels to at least 10 per cent (10 per cent ethanol: 90 per cent gasoline). Kenya used blends of 20 per cent alcohol in the 1990s without significant affecting engine performance. And if engines are modified, a much higher percentage of bioethanol can be used.

In 2003, global production was double the level of a decade earlier, and from 2000 to 2005, production increased from 4.6 billion to 12.2 billion gallons. Brazil and the United States are world leaders in using ethanol.


Biodiesel, a light to dark yellow liquid, is biodegradable, non-toxic and has significantly fewer emissions than petroleum-based diesel. It is practically immiscible with water, has a high boiling point and low vapour pressure. Biodiesel is produced from a wide range of feedstock, including fresh soybean oil, mustard seed oil, waste vegetable oil, palm oil, rapeseed, sunflower, soybean and jatropha, copra, palm, groundnut and cotton seed.

With a viscosity similar to petro-diesel, it can be used in diesel engines (cars, trucks, buses, construction equipment), jet engines, and heating and electricity generating systems. It blends easily with petro-diesel and can be used as an additive to ultra-low sulphur diesel to increase lubricity.

Nearly all diesel-powered equipment can use blends of up to 20 per cent biodiesel, and many engines can use higher-level blends or even pure biodiesel with little or no modification. Most storage and distribution equipment take lower-level blends, but need special handling for higher-level blends.

Biodiesel use and production has been growing fast in the face of rising petroleum costs, and because of government tax subsidies. From a small base of 251 million gallons in 2000, production climbed to an estimated 790 million gallons in 2005.

Biofuel benefits

Biofuels offer many benefits. By reducing demand for petroleum, biofuels could make energy supply more secure. Their use would also reduce import bills for energy-deficient countries and offer improved balance of trade and balance of payments. All these developments would unfreeze scarce resources for other pressing needs.

Emissions of greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide and particulates could all be significantly reduced. And biofuels also improve vehicle performance — biodiesel lubricity actually extends the life of diesel engines.

There are potential benefits for agricultural and rural development, including new jobs and income generation, which would undoubtedly help meet the Millennium Development Goals.

Moreover, the move to biofuels will create new industries and bring increased economic activity. It should also provide opportunities for carbon trading for many African countries.

Biofuels are renewable, and bioethanol and biodiesel are clean burning. Importantly, they may be easier to commercialise than other alternatives because they can be stored and distributed using existing infrastructure.

Biofuels should have a significant role in climate change policies, and this will certainly open up opportunities for biofuel development in developing countries, including Africa.

The situation in Africa

Worldwide, there have been major strides in producing and using biofuels, especially in Brazil, China, India and the United States. Yet there has been relatively little action in Africa, except for South Africa.

Countries growing sugar cane, mainly for sugar production, could with minimum effort either expand their activities in bioethanol production or initiate bioethanol production projects. These include Angola, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Of these, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa and Zimbabwe have all at one time or other used bioethanol as a transport or domestic fuel.

The potential for increasing ethanol production from African sugar cane is high; it is simply a question of redefining strategies to factor in large-scale ethanol production for domestic use, and in the longer run, for export.

Several factors will determine the economics of moving to biofuels, including economies of scale and national policies for using ethanol in transport.

Africa’s biofuel activities are concentrated in South Africa, where a ‘white paper’ has been prepared for government discussion. It proposes government actions and investment opportunities to foster biofuel development. Bio-diesel One, a South African company, has installed a test processor and has shown that a blend of five per cent biodiesel and 95 per cent petroleum diesel improves engine performance, offers enhanced lubricity and some reduction in emissions. Other projects include a 45,000 hectare nursery with an initial planting of four million jatropha curcas trees, the seeds of which will be used to produce biodiesel.

In Kenya, the government plans cooperation with Japan to produce biofuels.

In central Ghana, Ghana Bio-Energy Ltd is constructing a plant for processing jatropha oil into biodiesel.

Malawi’s biodiesel association has contracts for a jatropha curcas planting programme, while Uganda plans to be the first African country to operate a biodiesel plant, with an estimated investment of $30 million. The project is the brainchild of BIDCO Refineries Ltd, which operates a vegetable oil plant in Jinja.

Pitfalls to avoid

Before biofuels become widespread, we must tackle several pressing issues. Biofuels still need research to identify suitable feedstocks, the most appropriate production and processing procedures, environmental impacts, potential land use conflict with food crops, and international trade opportunities.

Land requirements and availability

Producing biofuels on a large scale could require huge tracts of land. Many countries cannot afford to divert land away from food production.

The ‘food versus fuel’ controversy is complex. Food and biomass require the same resources for production — land, water and agrochemicals. Food and fuel need not necessarily compete, particularly when there is careful planning for ecological conservation and sustainable production methods. But the real situation is less clear cut.

Worldwide, many studies on land availability give wide-ranging results, depending on their data sources and assumptions. And I am not aware of any such studies in individual African countries.

Policy issues

Few countries have comprehensive biofuel policies, and where present, they are often driven largely by agricultural considerations. Policies are urgently required to:

  • capture a wide spectrum of activities involving energy, environment, land use, land-use change, forestry, agriculture, water resources, transport; and
  • address the economic, social and environmental implications of widespread production, use and trade in biofuels.

Successful policy development and implementation requires a robust legal, regulatory and institutional framework. Legislation would guide regulation, management and development of biofuels by creating an administrative framework and procedures for managing projects and programmes.


Informed and effective policymaking needs reliable data and information. Information is most useful when it has been painstakingly collected, processed and analysed, and for biofuels, relevant information from the transportation, forestry, energy, agriculture, and environment sectors will be required. We still need to develop accurate ways to estimate and project biofuel demand in domestic and global markets.

Certainly, information on biofuel demand in African countries is inadequate. So is knowledge of biofuel resources and production, including the most appropriate feedstocks — all of which are critical in formulating a viable policy. These must be properly assessed. This could be done by developing a resource database and building the capacity to manage such a database.


Another factor limiting biofuel development and trade is the lack of standards for the sector in Africa, and indeed in many countries elsewhere in the world. There are no international standards either, making it difficult for biofuels to reach the global market.

Awareness and participation

Experience from a number of countries shows that active government involvement is important for developing biofuel programmes. Valuable lessons can be drawn from Germany, Brazil and the United States.

Germany has become a leader in high-technology biofuel production, due to strong government commitment, viable policy and solid collaboration from the private sector. This positive environment has in turn unleashed innovation.

The United States, too, has been active for some time. Congress and a number of States have provided robust support for biofuel development.

So has Brazil, especially for bioethanol. Biofuels are near the top of development agenda in the country.

But despite these lessons, African countries will still need to consider their own situations, since the experiences of others may not be easily replicable where conditions may differ.


Large-scale biofuel development needs financial resources. Worldwide, interest in biofuels is certainly growing, which will hopefully spur investments.

Many developing countries could obtain funding from international financial institutions and regional and sub-regional development banks. Other development partners are also ready to participate in viable projects.

But a crucial first step will be government action to create a favourable environment for domestic, as well as international, investors. Initiatives must forge partnerships between the public and private sectors. 

Scientific prospects

Worldwide, large-scale production of biofuels is growing fast. Further research and developments are expected in several areas:

  • Continuous fermentation and immobilised cells,
  • Developing organisms with increased tolerance to alcohols, wider substrate ranges and higher temperatures; and
  • lower energy requirements for recovery of alcohols.

In some regions with high agricultural productivity and no petroleum resources, carbohydrates are already converted into alcohols. This trend will probably become more widespread over the coming decades with technical progress.

Producing ethanol by breaking down cellulosic materials, such as switch-grass or fast-growing trees like hybrid poplars, with enzymes is promising. And work is also underway to genetically modify crops and plants for higher energy yields.

Big challenges in world energy

Energy’s critical importance in socio-economic development and environmental protection is now universally recognised. But the way energy is used currently is unsustainable. The challenge facing the international community is how best to move towards developing and using energy sustainably.

The potential contribution of renewable energy sources and technologies, particularly in developing countries, is high. A number of factors have hindered their development — including inadequate policies and limited access to existing technologies and investments. Development must now be speeded up to help solve the critical issue of inadequate primary energy sources in many areas.

We must encourage massive investments in energy resource development and use, and put in place mechanisms to build capacity in the energy sector.

S. Arungu-Olende is secretary-general of the African Academy Of Sciences.

This article is adapted from a paper presented at a Kenya National Academy of Sciences workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, in June 2007.

This article is part of a Spotlight on The biofuels revolution.