The African Bioeconomy comes into focus

February 8, 2023 |

By Gerard J. Ostheimer, PhD and Douglas L. Faulkner “The Cleantech Conservative”
Special to The Digest


Steady growth of the African bioeconomy is a “good news” story hiding in plain sight. Recent commercial successes combined with ambitious investments are helping to bring a vision for Africa’s bioeconomy into focus:


Perennial threats to food, energy, and water security combined with old-fashioned geo-politics is creating a sense of urgency and emboldening action on the international stage. Events over the next two years offer tailwinds for a new made-in-Africa approach to agriculture and energy:

  • India is using its 2023 G20 Presidency to advance global dialog on biofuels, including the potential for increasing biofuel production in the Global South;
  • Brazil assumes the G20 Presidency in 2024 and will continue the drive promoting biofuel production and use in Africa and across the Global South;
  • The United Nation’s International Development Organization created a government-led International Ethanol Cooking Alliance to accelerate market growth for ethanol cooking in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Seven East African countries supported by the Stockholm Environment Institute prepared and launched the Regional Bioeconomy Strategy for East Africa that will catalyze new policies for sustainable, bio-based and inclusive economic growth.

The war in Ukraine jolted a world that had become complacent regarding Food and Energy Security. Violence and sanctions removed Ukrainian and Russian corn, wheat, and sunflower oil exports from global markets. In addition, fertilizer exports from Russia were cut and high natural gas prices in Europe is driving down their production of nitrogen fertilizer. These developments further increased food prices from Nigeria to Somalia that were already at record levels before the war; as such, a combination of food scarcity and higher prices is driving millions into food insecurity, particularly across the Global South.

Interestingly, this latest food security crisis is motivating African leaders to increase their food security by increasing their own agricultural production. Matthew Rochat points out that “Africa is home to 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, representing nearly 65% of the global total. Moreover, 70% of Africa’s population make a living from agriculture, . . . [but] crop yields are far below their potential. With this as the starting point, the Russia-Ukraine War has brought added awareness to the bizarre phenomenon whereby the world’s most fertile continent is importing $35 billion worth of food each year. In other words, why is a continent that is exceedingly abundant in both arable farmland and youthful agricultural workers dependent on external sources to feed itself?”

Indeed, given these resources Africa should not only become one of the world’s “breadbaskets”, but a robust source of biomass for a vibrant African bioeconomy.


A hallmark of the global bioeconomy over the last century has been its resiliency and adaptability.  From its roots in the American chemurgy movement, vibrant markets for bio-based fuels, chemicals, and materials are found across the world, except Africa. Each region put their own stamp on the bioeconomy, based on their own cultures, politics, communities, and development – – and Africa will be no different.  The African experience in telecommunications, where the continent leap-frogged straight into the cellular world may offer clues on similar novel routes to agricultural modernization, food security, rural development, and a multi-faceted bioeconomy.  African leaders are resisting pressures to slow their economic growth despite pressure from climate activists to put climate change mitigation first. We believe they will focus on improving the lives of their citizens with a wide range of solutions that offer successful outcomes for their specific circumstances and that bio-based solutions will be part of the mix.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, one of the greatest challenges is access to clean cooking. Cooking with ethanol is ultra-clean and cost competitive. Recent success marketing ethanol cooking combined with potential demand for 20 billion gallons of ethanol suggests that the cooking fuel will be a major driver of the African bioeconomy. Countries like Kenya and Nigeria may well tackle basic issues of clean cooking at the same time as mobilizing first-generation and second-generation biofuels for transportation. In addition, Africa’s bio-development partners may come from new global centers, like India, as much as from Europe and the U.S.  Africa will likely surprise bio-aficionados with its own paths to success in true sustainable growth.

The only sub-Saharan Africa project in Jim Lane’s recent “Top 50 Global Bio-Economy Hot Spots” was the Uganda-Kenya corridor at #50.  We believe that ranking is just the opening round for this continent in the fluid, ever-more-competitive world marketplace for biofuels, chemicals, and products.   As global attention to the inter-linked challenges of food and energy security comes more into focus, investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers will realize that Africa’s agricultural modernization should be the linchpin for economic growth, environmental improvement, gender equity, and geopolitical stability.

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