Fuelling productivity

Bioenergy could provide the energy needed to raise agricultural productivity in Africa

Moustapha Kamal Gueye

For many ACP countries, increasing agricultural productivity also requires more energy from expensive fuel sources. But several projects in West Africa show that bioenergy could help solve the problem.

Energy is an essential component of agricultural production. It is necessary for running agricultural machinery, such as tractors and harvesters, and for operating irrigation systems and pumps using electricity, diesel or other fuel sources. Energy is also required in the processing and conserving of agricultural products, and for the transportation and storage of goods.

In the current context of fluctuating oil prices, however, the oil importing bills of several African countries amount to 50% of export earnings, and many nations are struggling to meet their current energy demands. At the same time, expanding access to energy in rural Africa is a critical part of modernization and future agricultural development, making energy supply both a problem and a part of the solution. The energy crisis that these countries face is not only a problem in itself, but it also presents a hurdle in addressing food security in Africa.

But although the agricultural sector is emerging as a significant energy consumer, it is also as a potential source of energy generation. The production of energy from agriculture is at the centre of the present boom in bioenergy. Indeed, most biofuels produced today originate from the agricultural sector.

There are a wide range of crops produced in Africa that are source of bioenergy. Sugarcane, sugar beet, maize, sorghum and cassava are all suitable for ethanol production, while peanuts, jatropha and palm oil can be used to produce biodiesel. Agricultural and forestry products also have great potential. According to estimates published by the Copernicus Institute, Africa has the potential to produce about 317 exajoules of bioenergy on surplus agricultural land by 2050. That is roughly equivalent to 142 million barrels of oil per day. And this is the amount that can be produced under optimal conditions, meaning without causing environmental damage or undermining food supplies for growing populations.

Integration

Tapping into this potential could help decrease the dependency on imported oil for many countries, and contribute to meeting the energy demands of the agricultural sector and rural electrification. There is, however, a challenge to using food crops for energy. Many food importing African countries are already experiencing food supply problems, partly as a result of using of cereals, such as maize, soya and wheat, to produce biofuels in other parts of the world. But the real potential may lie in making use of non-food crops such as jatropha, or the vast agricultural and forest reserves, to generate energy.

Jatropha curcas, also known as the Barbados nut or pourghère, is currently receiving a lot of attention. Traditionally used to make protective hedges or mark out agricultural land, jatropha, is widely available throughout Africa. It can grow on very poor soil and is extremely drought-resistant, making it ideally suited to conditions in several parts of Africa, including the dry regions in the west. In fact, there are already programmes operating in Mali and Senegal that focus on the development of jatropha as a modern form of bioenergy.

In Senegal, a national biofuels programme that began in 2006 seeks to plant more than 300,000 hectares of jatropha, at a rate of 1,000 ha per rural community. This would produce over 3 million tonnes of seeds per year by 2012, resulting in more than one thousand million litres of refined jatropha oil that could be used as biodiesel. In Mali, too, several experiments that have been conducted over the past few years have revealed the possibility of using jatropha oil for agricultural production and rural electrification, while also availing of this plant’s positive environmental and social impacts.

There are now several initiatives that generate bioenergy from agriculture and then use it to meet the energy requirements of agricultural production. Some projects, for example, use bioenergy to drive water pumping systems for irrigation, to provide lighting or run generators to supply electricity for anything from refrigeration to machinery for grinding and processing cereals.

If bioenergy could be developed in ways that do not undermine the already fragile agricultural system, but rather carefully integrate energy and food crops, then it could help to meet the energy challenge of increasing agricultural productivity. To achieve this, African countries would need to formulate clear strategies and policies that take into account the various socio-economic and environmental implications of integrating energy and food production. Taking these factors into consideration will be just one important aspect in the range of actions needed to ensure a sustainable development of agriculture in Africa.

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Moustapha Kamal Gueye is a senior programme manager with the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) .

Related links

Copernicus Institute

Possibilities and limitations for sustainable bioenergy production systems
A paper by Dr Edward Smeets of Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Sustainable Bioenergy Development in UEMOA Member Countries
The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and The Hub for Rural Development in West and Central Africa

 

08 December 2008

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