The furiously developing food verses fuel debate is threatening to put developing countries which have to buy both commodities in order for its citizens to survive, between a rock and a hard place.
For an average net importer of food and fuel, like Rwanda, the idea of biofuels would appear to be the savior in these dire times, especially when our dependency on fossil fuels is proving to be a major headache to the growing economies of our kind.
During the recent Rome food summit, the deliberations were marred by the clash of opinions, with the biofuel proponents putting down their foot firmly on any resolution that would hint at blaming what is supposed to be a source of renewable energy.
By definition, biofuels are any kind of fuel made from living things, or from the waste they produce. This means that firewood and biogas both fall into this category.
The energy balances of most African countries suggest that biofuels (wood fuel, crop and wood residues, and dung) constitute the largest share of total energy consumption (up to 97% in some sub-Saharan Africa countries).
The contentious biofuels however are those that are directly obtained from plants that would have otherwise been sources of food, like sugarcane, maize/corn or Soya beans.
In this case, the foods which contain starch or sugar reserves are fermented to produce ethanol and other alcohols which are then either mixed with petrol or used purely to substitute derivatives of fossil oil to produce energy.
The advantage is that unlike fossil fuels which on being burnt greenhouse gases which accumulate in the atmosphere to encourage global warming (through a different scientific process), biofuels burn more efficiently to produce less greenhouse gases.
At times of hiking oil prices, many countries have begun to look at biofuel as a viable, renewable and cheaper alternative in the long run to the dwindling crude oil reserves.
Because the demand for biofuel has suddenly increased, farmland is being moved away from food production to the more lucrative production of raw materials for biofuels hence reducing on the available food stocks for human consumption, and causing a food shortage.
If this happens in places which are net exporters of food then this has the direct impact of reducing food available to countries in Africa which cannot grow enough food for themselves.
In a recent article by Kimani Chege in the Business Daily, appropriately titled “Is Biofuel Africa’s New Oil?” he states that African governments are increasingly looking to biofuel as a viable way to meet the fuel needs of a rising urban population.
He goes on to categorically mention several biofuel projects that have been started in African countries with the eye firmly on substituting oil in the future.
One such project is the Ngima Project at Homa Bay, in Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The project is aimed at fostering a dual export and domestic system of an annual 100,000 tones of white plantation sugar production, and 259 million litres of fuel-grade ethanol for export.
Pierre Alain Puippe, global manager for biofuels at Fair Energy, a biofuel company that will be one of the major stakeholders in the Project says “Kenya has the agricultural capacity to produce biofuel at a good price while, geographically, being well-placed for access to the Asia market,” According to Justin Vermaak, chief executive officer of the Durban-based Verus Company Group, when moving forward with biofuel projects, it is vital to ensure the food supply isn’t in jeopardy in the region where the project is being developed.
The so-called second generation biofuels have recently gained praise as the solution to Africa’s problem of eliminating the competition between biofuels and food production.
Jatropha which can be cultivated in semi-arid, arid, or sub-humid soils, appears to be the viable alternative although it then raises its own conundrum. Growth of such a crop would like a large scale movement of land from food crops or reclamation of forests into growing of fuel crops.
In Mali, Some 700 communities have installed biodiesel generators powered by oil from the hardy Jatropha curcas plant to meet their energy needs, according to Reuters.
Generation of biofuels could help provide solutions to transport costs and reduce expenditure on energy in rural areas by between 30 and 40 percent, argued Paul Ginies, managing director of the Ouagadougou-based International Institute for Water and Environment Engineering.
No matter what we say, today biofuels represent a pragmatic solution in light of the energy problems in relation to soaring oil prices,”
Meanwhile, some experts believe that the impact of biofuels in Africa, if well handled could have a dramatic effect on the millions of people who are adversely affected by the two major crises of our time, of oil and food scarcity.
Growing of biofuel crops like Jatropha could provide the necessary income that would enable farmers to afford the price of food.