The twin promise of food and bioenergy security in Africa

Chisomo Matia has a small business selling fried potatoes made on a wood-fired stove in Kwindanguwo village in Dowa, Malawi. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Chisomo Matia has a small business selling fried potatoes made on a wood-fired stove in Kwindanguwo village, Dowa, Malawi. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

People everywhere have needs that exceed the basics of food and shelter. They seek fulfillment and happiness and a better future for their children. Farmers seek better yields for less labour, and better nutrition for less cash. All of that takes energy.

While African smallholders are largely— if inadequately—self-sufficient in food, they are grappling with energy scarcity. This energy poverty means that most Africans have no access to electricity, and worse, of the fossil fuel energy the continent uses, 60% is imported.

For most rural people in Africa, cooking is still done on a three-stone fire, as it has for millennia. Biomass fuel—firewood, dried cowdung and stover—is still the primary energy source.

The unregulated unsustainable overexploitation of the prime source of that energy—the trees that people cut down for firewood or charcoal—is an ever-present risk in most African countries.

And yet bioenergy—the energy gained from biomass—has extraordinary potential as biogas, biofuels, charcoal and fuelwood, and nowhere more than in Africa.

Bioenergy is an indigenous resource requiring no foreign exchange to buy. Provided it is sustainably managed, it can power Africa’s development for years to come. For example, Malawi, our host for the Beating Famine Southern Africa Conference, already generates ethanol from sugarcane molasses for blending into transport fuels.

But there are dangers, too. The enthusiasm for Jatropha-based biofuels led to a boom-and-bust phenomenon that left many farmers destitute. And, of course, there is the very real danger that land will be taken out of food production to grow energy biomass.

The OECD estimates that this phenomenon could lead to a doubling of food prices within a decade, which would have a disastrous impact on Africa’s food security. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that a global goal to substitute 10% of transport fuels with biofuels by 2050 would consume 29% of the calories produced by the world’s farmers.

In that context, Africa needs to manage its biomass resources very carefully. Local, specific, context-relevant research is essential before decisions are taken. Pro-biofuel policies need to be carefully evaluated before they are promulgated. But most importantly, the energy needs of the vast majority of rural Africans who depend on fuelwood must be factored into any such policy.

In Ethiopia, the Stockholm Environment Institute has worked for years to understand the relationships between food, water and energy issues—the nexus that most influences the decisions taken by farmers, other land users and planners.

Ethiopia’s growth and transformation plan includes pathways for development for water, energy and food. Local, specific, context-relevant research is needed to understand this, and SEI decided to do the pioneering work in Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile in north-western Ethiopia.

The Lake Tana region is mostly rural, but the development plan features quite a lot of damming: how would that play out? To find out, SEI ran three scenarios: business as usual (low adaptation of new technology), national plan (full adoption of preferred technologies), and nexus (resolving dilemmas, policy and innovation needs).

What became explicit are the inevitable tradeoffs involved and the potential tensions between stakeholders. This is precious information for governments and other stakeholders, who need to explore innovations and new ways of working together to address these issues.

Innovations depend on selecting the right tools. Take Gliricidia, a tree widely used in Malawi for its positive effects on crop yields (it fixes nitrogen) and fodder (high in protein). It is very fast-growing, so harvest can begin within one planting season. In Sri Lanka, the tree is intercropped with coconuts. The wood it produces is harvested for industrial power generation. There, it is a cheaper feedstock than coal or oil, and is also used to power factories and households. It is a model that is simple, resilient, and ideal for rural electrification. Most importantly, it balances food and energy needs.

That model is full of promise for Africa. Wood, burned in a stove can generate the heat to drive a small turbine, providing electricity to communities that never had it before. But to date, biomass-based rural electricity is a rare occurrence in Africa, despite its obvious promise. Why is that?

Sometimes, it seems that it is the quality of that promise that is the biggest barrier to widespread adoption. Agroforestry promises so much—yields, plus biomass, plus biodiversity, plus erosion control, weather buffering, etc. —that it is hard for the cynics to understand that sometimes, seemingly impossible promises are merely a refection of pedestrian reality.

Other times, it is the combined weight of modern reductionist principles. The idea that some systems cannot be reduced to component parts; that some systems perform well despite an inadequate understanding of their underlying mechanisms, appears strange to many people.

The conversations held in the margins of this conference left your correspondent’s heart filled with hope. Rarely has he enjoyed the inspiring sight of people of such vastly different backgrounds agreeing on the fundamental analysis of what exactly was wrong with the world’s current farming systems.

If that spirit survives this conference, we can all be optimistic about the future.

Blog by Patrick Worms, Senior Science Policy Adviser with ICRAF

Visit the Bioenergy Forum hosted by ICRAF

Visit Beating Famine conference site: http://beatingfamine.com/

Related stories:

Beating Famine Conference seeks a bold vision for Southern Africa

Beating Famine conference tackles food insecurity in Southern Africa

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