Maximising Africa’s bioenergy potential

Current bioenergy efforts in Africa focus on first generation technologies using crops such as jatropha Copyright: Flickr/treesftf

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African bioenergy projects must focus on new technologies and receive stronger political support, says biofuel expert Emile van Zyl.

Africa has immense potential when it comes to producing energy from biomass, particularly ‘second generation’ technologies that convert woody or grassy materials — including agricultural waste — into biofuels.

Africa can potentially produce as much plant biomass as any other continent, and far more than it requires for its own food and basic needs. In theory, the continent could replace its transportation fossil fuel demands with renewable biofuel and still be a net exporter of biofuels. Indeed, a 2007 study estimated that by 2050, Africa could provide one quarter of the world’s bioenergy through the use of second generation technologies.

If Africa were to join the renewable energy race and realise its potential, it could not only reduce the continent’s dependency on oil — bringing foreign exchange savings and much-needed political stability — but also improve food and energy security, support the industrial sector, reduce greenhouse gases and promote land restoration.

It would also help alleviate poverty by improving access to energy in rural areas, boosting local agriculture production, giving farmers access to additional markets and revenues, and generating jobs. The 2007 South African Industrial Biofuels Strategy predicted that the production of just 400 million litres of biofuel per year would generate an additional 25,000 jobs.

Political lethargy

But Africa’s current efforts to promote biofuels are ill-informed — projects either focus on food crops or use poorly researched alternatives.

Most African projects concentrate on first generation biofuels produced from crops such as sugarcane or jatropha. While these are undoubtedly essential to establishing a biofuels industry, they suffer inherent limitations, such as demanding large water inputs or limited research.

Second generation biofuels, in contrast, would allow the use of agricultural residues and alien invasive plant species, as well as high-yielding non-food crops that can be grown on more marginal or degraded land.

If a misplaced research focus is hampering African efforts in bioenergy, so too is a lack of political will. 

During the 1980s, both Brazil and South Africa promoted biofuel production. But, while Brazil is now the world’s second largest producer of biofuels, Southern Africa’s production remains pitifully small, standing at less than 5 per cent of the 20 billion litres predicted to come out of Brazil this year.

Why this staggering difference? Very early on, the Brazilian government gave significant subsidies and tax breaks to farmers, distillers and car manufacturers in its ProAlcool Programme. And by financing a distribution network to get biofuel to gas stations, and keeping alcohol prices low, it encouraged uptake by consumers.

In contrast, it wasn’t until 2007 that South Africa produced its eagerly awaited Biofuels Industry Strategy — and then the low targets and limited incentives stifled the industry. If African leaders could exert the same political will as Brazil did in the early 1980s, just think where the continent would be now. 

The sky’s the limit

For bioenergy to become a reality for Africa, we Africans must take charge of our own future.

This means revitalising agriculture and rural development, starting with policies and frameworks to encourage local collaboration between African nations. The dumping of excess subsidised food on local markets must be prevented so that rural farmers can produce crops at competitive prices.

It also means adopting an entrepreneurial attitude — securing land tenure and taking ownership in African bioenergy programmes.

Equally important is developing our human resource capacity in sustainable agriculture and forestry research through training and rekindling our love for these sectors.

We need to approach donors and development banks with sound business plans, and negotiate access to technology and adapt it to African conditions. A South African biofuels company, StellenboschBiomass Technologies has, for example, acquired the rights to adapt and commercialise cellulosic ethanol technology from the US-based biofuels company Mascoma Corporation.

This will allow them to adapt the technology for southern African conditions and plant materials, and to produce biofuel from non-edible parts of plants. But to make a real impact, this type of effort will need to be implemented at a much broader scale.

If we can achieve this, the sky will be the limit for Africa in the renewable era.

Emile Van Zyl is a professor of microbiology and holds a research chair in biofuels research at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.