African agrofuels threaten local energy, food needs

Posted: 13 November 2008

Author: Michelle Pressend

Although agrofuels are often described as an opportunity to unleash Africa's agricultural potential, these crops are grown to meet the needs of a global energy market, while Africans face an insecure energy future.

In the Southern Africa region, more than 80 per cent of the population is still dependent on biomass for energy, particularly, wood, cow dung and coal. It is mainly women and children in rural areas who collect wood and search for coal in and around operating and abandoned mines.

As a consequence of no access to modern, safe, clean and affordable energy - such as electricity - many rural communities experience devastating health and social conditions. Indoor pollution from cooking on open fires is particularly severe in the Southern African region.

Woman with child cooking indoors © Ron Giling Panos Pictures
Woman with child cooking indoors © Ron Giling Panos Pictures
Woman with child cooking indoors. Indoor air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 1.6 million people every year, and the illness of many more. Photo © Ron Giling / Panos Pictures
According to the Medical Research Council, acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI), such as pneumonia, accounts for 14 per cent of deaths amongst children less than five years old in South Africa alone. On the whole, it is estimated that exposure to indoor air pollution accounts for as much as 4-6 per cent of the burden of diseases in certain developing countries.

In addition to poor health, the lack of access to clean and safe energy also denies poor households the opportunity to realise other basic socio-economic rights. For example, the right to education, the fundamental building block of all societies, is severely compromised, as poor households are unable to achieve the conditions required for reading and learning after dark.

Renewable potential

Renewable energy such as bioenergy and solar energy have huge potential for rural development and can provide clean, safe and modern solutions for rural households. Bioenergy, in particular, the use of plant materials and animal waste matter in the form of biogas and/or biofuels, (specifically non-food and appropriate crops) has significant potential for greater self-reliance for rural communities to generate their own energy and provide for their electricity needs.

But, this potential may never be realised because governments and industry have prioritised an export orientated focus for agrofuels. Agricultural crops and feedstock are being used to produce ethanol and diesel by commercial farmers to meet external demand.

The economic logic is that farmers will make more money from exporting feedstock and their surpluses because there is a greater external demand than an internal one. However, the reasoning of orthodox economics only responds to "effective demand" - that is the ability to pay for goods at prevailing prices, which effectively excludes the majority of people that lack "market-based entitlement".

Even though there is an internal demand for energy by 80 per cent of solid fuel-dependent households in the region, they are simply left out of the equation because they cannot afford access - nor are governments willing to create an enabling environment or invest in infrastructure where costs will not be recovered.

While a number of pilot projects, largely initiated by donors and NGOs to address the needs of these communities exist, the problem is that these projects often remain in the pilot phase and are not sustainable. They usually last for a short period of time. Often, neither is an enabling environment created nor are communities empowered to maintain the projects.

The agrofuels hype is regarded by many governments, agro-business and some commercial farmers as an opportunity to unleash Africa's agricultural potential, mostly due to available land to grow agrofuels crops. Southern African governments and business believe in the "trickle-down effect" as a direct result of the export of primary commodities and foreign direct investment.

In the case of agrofuels, both large scale and small scale commercial farmers directly export their feedstock. Alternatively, foreign companies set up plants to produce ethanol or diesel from feedstock provided by local farmers, which is then exported.

Multinational companies also purchase or lease land and grow crops to produce ethanol or diesel. These trends indicate that agrofuels could be another "resource curse" and follow the route of "cash crop" exports, which have had a devastating impact on the social, economic and environmental conditions in many African countries.

At a recent workshop in Maputo, hosted by Citizens United for Renewable Energy and Sustainability (CURES), which took place last September, Mozambican NGOs warned that biofuels prospects are causing panic amongst communities about access to land. They were concerned about enterprises asking for 30,000 hectares of land and feel that these demands are excessive.

The Mozambican government is already signing agreements with foreign companies to lease land. For example, the government signed a US$510 million deal with the London-listed Central African Mining and Exploration Company (CAME), to build and establish an energy plant producing 120 million litres of ethanol per year, as well as fertiliser (Biopact 2007). Similarly, Namibian representatives highlighted that none of the investment in their country was used to meet Namibian needs.

In South Africa, in the Eastern Cape, a project has been initiated to develop a biofuel plant. The project's focus is to export to Europe. One of the biggest challenges facing the Eastern Cape is that small scale farmers do not have productive capacity and huge commercial farmers will be required to assist with inputs.

Jatropha problems

Jatropha is grown in Africa as a biofuel
Jatropha is grown in Africa as a biofuel
Jatropha is grown in Africa as a biofuel.
In Mozambique, the deforestation impact was also raised as a serious concern, especially for growing the toxic jatropha plant, which raises a whole set of different concerns for workers who handle the plant.

Furthermore, the main social concern for many countries in the region is that paradoxically, energy for electricity is imported.

Although agrofuel initiatives occur mostly due to external demands on the region, particularly from European Union companies, participants at the CURES workshop felt that there are local opportunities to meet energy needs and that more has to be done about the distribution of energy.

Zambia, for instance, has prioritised local energy security. Here jatropha initiatives are mainly targeted at meeting national energy needs. Zambia's main focus is for domestic consumption for energy security and rural development. In Malawi, the production of ethanol is mainly for the transportation market and is intended to support flexi-fuel cars.

The Southern African region clearly has an incoherent energy security strategy. Some countries have a responsible focus on energy security. However, the fact that others prioritise large scale corporate investment and place heavy emphasis on the export market, warrants the need for a regional approach to bioenergy that supports rural development and meets the food and energy needs of the region.

This regional bioenergy strategy needs to support rural electrification based on a decentralised approach that is managed and owned by local people to improve their well-being and livelihoods. - Third World Network Features

Michelle Pressend is senior researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

This article is reproduced from the South African Civil Society Information Service (sacsis.org.za), 31 October 2008.