Growing the African Biofuel Sector: What’s Not to Like?

October 22, 2017 |

Doug Faulkner

Gerard Ostheimer

By Gerard Ostheimer and Doug Faulkner

Special to The Digest

Lost in all the wrangling in Europe and the U.S. over the benefits of biofuels and whether or not they can mitigate climate change is the recognition that in Sub-Saharan Africa a thriving indigenous bioenergy industry can play a positive and productive role in modernizing economies and improving the quality of human life.

One challenge for African bioenergy development though will be for Africans themselves to forge their own path to sustainability and identify their most relevant feedstocks and products. African policymakers, investors and entrepreneurs would do well to circumvent the West’s increasingly bitter sustainability battles and adopt their own approaches.

To support a young and growing population, Africa must modernize its agricultural sector and end its addiction to hardwood charcoal and imported petroleum products, like diesel. A thriving bioenergy sector making renewable fuels and electricity from crops, like native palm and sugar cane, grown and harvested by farmers increasingly using best world practices would be critical to that effort.

Noted academics have pointed out that Africa has the most arable land and the lowest yields per acre in the world; and, as such, Africa is the region with the most potential for agricultural growth. Bioenergy demand for sugar, starch and/or cellulosic feedstock could foster stable markets that drive the investment needed to realize this potential. Savings from lower food and energy imports would create a virtuous cycle helping to power economic growth and environmental improvement – – essentially, the Brazilian model.

While critics in the West assail biofuels in general for their alleged damage to food production and question their ability to mitigate climate change, a growing number of academics, international and non-governmental organizations take the opposite view. For example, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IEA Bioenergy and the International Renewable Energy Agency see the potential for symbiosis between sustainable agriculture and bioenergy production. In addition, FAO and the International Energy Agency developed a Bioenergy How2Guide. It really calls into question the presumption of competition between food and bioenergy when the global agency responsible for promoting agriculture and food security supports the thoughtful deployment of bioenergy in developing countries. To foster modernization of bioenergy in developing countries, the Global Bioenergy Partnership developed its Indicators of Sustainable Bioenergy, which emphasize the importance of national context in considering sustainable bioenergy production and use. African institutions, including the New Partnership for African Development, the African Union Commission and the UN Economic Commission for Africa all embrace bioenergy as a driver for rural development.

Given the available resources and the groundswell of international support for African agriculture and bioenergy, one might expect that Africa is fast becoming an exemplary engine of the global bioeconomy. Unfortunately, African agriculture development has been disrupted by outside interests pursuing their own parochial agendas, like campaigns against biotechnology. Policy debates in Brussels and persistent criticism of biofuels’ sustainability dilute and distort the pro-bioenergy message coming out of international organizations. Moreover, Europeans are increasingly leery of bio-sourced diesel replacements, especially in the wake of the Volkswagen debacle, and they are increasingly vocal about an all-electric future for transportation. Given their proximity, shared history and the persistent role of European aid agencies, discussions in Europe have an outsized impact on African policy development. But, to state the obvious, the African reality is quite different than the European situation. It ignores the fact that sustainable bioenergy gives Africa the biggest bang for the buck given their circumstances. For example, renewable diesel from sustainable feedstocks, including vegetable oils, is an attractive option for their transportation system, as electric vehicles just don’t make much sense for many reasons at this time.


African leaders should heed the debates of the West and avoid the tar-pit of political wrangling over quotas, mandates and standards. They should instead focus on demonstrating publicly their priority of lifting the standard of living of their peoples and giving them hope for a cleaner, more prosperous future. Likewise, they should develop their own science-based approach to enforcing sustainable bioenergy production and use that is tailored to their specific feedstocks and agronomic contexts.

Africans should strive for sustainable fuels from native feedstocks in a modern infrastructure and thriving economy- – and not replicate the U.S. experience of slow growth from first-generation to advanced fuels. Renewable diesel would fit right into existing fuel systems without the need for the whole blending investment – – and would give them greater reductions in pollution and carbon. Feedstocks could include endogenous croton nut, sustainable palm and woody biomass. A prosperous African bioenergy sector would also provide alternatives to charcoal for clean-cooking, co-generation and gasification for electricity and ultimately, advanced jet fuel for their growing aviation demand. This would be the agriculture-bioenergy equivalent of the African telecommunications revolution in which they skipped deploying land-lines and instead went straight to cellphones.

Admittedly, there is still much we just don’t know and need more on-the-ground information for businesses and governments, like personal use of biomass for energy at the national level. Nevertheless, an Africa that can feed itself would have numerous positive add-on effects and would be the cornerstone of a prosperous continent as its population continues to grow. It is clear to us that growing a strong, diverse and sustainable agricultural sector will go hand-in-hand with an advanced, sustainable bioeconomy. And, that’s good news for Africa and the world!

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Category: Thought Leadership

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