Rockin’ the cassava: The Shareef don’t like it but Nigeria does

November 26, 2017 |

In Nigeria, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kebbi State Government to build an 84 million litres per annum capacity fuel-ethanol project. The Sugarcane and Cassava-Fuel Ethanol Project in Kebbi State would involve the development of 20,000 hectares of an integrated plantation and plant complex.

The backstory

With about 186 million people living in Nigeria making it the most populous country in Africa and seventh most in the world, it is set to be a leader in the biofuels future. Prior to the 1970’s, Nigeria was able to feed its entire population without importing food, but as the population has grown so quickly, so has the need for importing food.

So the fact that the government and businesses are supporting and promoting sugarcane and cassava – otherwise food crops – are causing some NGOs and environmentalists to be up in arms and upset about the huge push for biofuels in Nigeria.

Much like the rock music banned by the Shareef in The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” song, there are some that would rather ban food feedstock based biofuels in Nigeria, but cassava and sugarcane farmers, corporations, and government will be dancing in the streets with more biofuel projects like these coming to the rescue to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on oil.

Quite a large population are employed in Nigerian agriculture – about 30% – with cassava being one of the key crops, along with cocoa and rubber as big export agricultural products. But Nigeria is also one of the world’s largest petroleum producers and exporter, accounting for an estimated 80% of government earnings. It hasn’t been all peaceful and easy though due to control issues and disruptions in production preventing Nigeria from exporting at 100% capacity. In fact, several oil companies, like NNPC, are divesting their interests and moving away from oil towards biofuel and other alternatives because of the conflicts and oil theft issues.

Government support and push for biofuels

The support by federal and state governments in Nigeria for biofuels have been impressive in recent years with many new projects popping up around the country to diversify their economy and move away from “the uncertainties of absolute dependence on oil.”

Speaking during the MoU signing, the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Dr. Maikanti Baru, said the MoU was to commence the practical of the NNPC Fuel-Ethanol Projects in Kalgo and Koko Besse Local Government areas of Kebbi State.

“Let me use this opportunity to convey my sincere appreciation to the Government of Kebbi State on her interest to partner NNPC in achieving the Federal Government’s mandate on automotive biofuels production in Nigeria. Today is a watershed in the life of Kebbi State prime position as the food basket and feeder of the nation. The MoU today will move you to the next level of not just a feeder of the nation, but one which also provides fuel for the nation.” Dr. Baru stated.

The GMD listed the benefits of the project to include: creation of rural wealth, generation of 1,000,000 direct and indirect jobs, co-generation of about 64 megawatts of bio-electricity to power the plant and lighten up the surrounding communities, effecting reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, production of refined sugar and Industrial starch as well as production of animal feeds.

He noted that Kebbi State was trying to take its rightful place in the biofuels project, as he attested to the large expanse of arable land the State is endowed with.

“We are greatly encouraged to observe that Mr. President, Muhammadu Buhari, is very passionate about the Biofuel Industry vision. It is my expectation that the signing of the MoU between KBSG and NNPC will open the way to the Federal Government’s Economic diversification drive. Also, it is hoped that this event will send a clear message to other State Governments who are yet to come on board in the new agro-allied industrial revolution,” Dr. Baru averred.

Dr. Baru stated that the potentials for biofuels in the country and for export were enormous, stressing that the NNPC was willing to offer opportunity for investment in the project by citizens of the State.

Earlier, Kebbi State Governor, Alh. Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, who led a high powered delegation representing every strata of the state, congratulated the President and the GMD for the vision of the biofuels project, stressing that the move would transform the NNPC into a fully-fledged energy company.

Alh. Bagudu stated that the energy sector was an evolving one, adding that Kebbi State was thankful for the opportunity to partner with the NNPC on the biofuels project.

“The GMD and top management of the NNPC, we in Kebbi State will do our utmost best to make sure that the objective of the biofuel project is realized,” Gov. Bagudu reassured.

Should it stay or should it go?

Even The Clash realized in the 1980’s that “one day it’s fine and next it’s black” and “If I go, there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.” Much like biofuels are often loved one day or by one group and then hated another day by another group, some ask should Nigeria’s focus on food based feedstocks, like sugarcane and cassava, stay or should they go?

Some like Italy’s ENI are saying it should stay with their recent interest in setting up a joint venture with the NNPC to develop domestic biofuel production, as reported in October in the Digest. Though both ethanol and biodiesel are planned under the national program, it isn’t clear yet what ENI’s role will be or what kind of production it is likely to support.

A UKAID-funded project is also saying it should stay, in particular cassava should stay as it seeks to help cassava farmers mechanize their harvest too boost production efficiency while grouping them together in clusters in an effort to increase opportunities for ethanol production, as reported in the Digest in October. The country is the largest cassava grower in the world while ethanol demand is around 400 million liters annually. The Cassava Mechanization and Agro-Processing (CAMAP) run by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation aimed to reach 3.5 million farmers over the project’s five-year timeline but its uptake has been so successful more might be impacted.

And moving forward, it has, with the Digest reporting just days ago that in Nigeria, Africa’s largest ethanol plant is set for commissioning in about two months, producing an expected 120,000 liters per day in Ota Ogun state. The plant is expected to supply a third of its production to the wider group of companies under the Sona Group while the rest will be supplied to the domestic food and drinks sector that currently relies on imports. Fuel ethanol does not appear to be on the cards in the near future.

But not everyone is on board with cassava in particular for Nigeria’s future fuels. As reported in the Digest in September, a Nigerian NGO says cassava needs to go due to concern that genetically modified cassava is a “gateway” for other GM crops. The local NGO lashed out at attempts to carry out a controlled trial of GM cassava as a potential ethanol feedstock, saying that the move by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Zurich, Switzerland-based ETHZ Laboratories was a sly way to open the door for other GM crops such as corn and cotton. The modification to the cassava is so that the roots lose less starch after harvesting to allow more flexibility in storage and handling before processing into ethanol.

Bottom Line

While concerns over cassava as a “gateway” GM crop is interesting, we don’t see it stopping the push and support for cassava and other food crop based biofuels in Nigeria. Their attempt to diversify beyond oil and become more energy independent and self-sufficient is a noble one and with the increasing government support throughout Nigeria, we see cassava and biofuels in general becoming a real economic opportunity for the country as an alternative to fossil fuels. Cassava in particular could bring more cash to Nigeria, which is already the largest producer of cassava tubers in the world.

However, Nigerian biofuels will need to be implemented in a sustainable manner that can be measured, audited, and checked so that it doesn’t conflict with feeding Nigeria’s growing population and so that it doesn’t face the same corruption, resource conflicts, and wealth stealing issues that has plagued the oil industry. If Nigeria does it right, they really can rock the cassava and even get the Shareef to like it.

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