Africa’s alternative energy movement

Apr 06, 2007 02:00 AM

Africa's vast arable lands have the potential to rival top agricultural nations such as the US in supplying biofuels to a world seeking cleaner energy sources. But using land reserved for food production to supply biofuel demand could squeeze food supplies in a region vulnerable to shortages. It could also hurt poor consumers if the biofuel boom pushes food prices higher.
As alternative energy takes off, Africans hope to cash in on the high prices of the commodities used to produce these fuels. Already, investors have pledged billions of dollars for plants to produce bioethanol and biodiesel from crops such as sugar, maize and soya beans in Africa.

However, there is one major obstacle to this kind of investment -- infrastructure. In Angola, the land in question is covered by dense forest. Roads and manufacturing capacity have been wrecked by two decades of civil war. But as the energy movement spreads and major agricultural powers find limits to their output, they may be forced to turn to Africa and be willing to spend money on setting up infrastructure, analysts say.
"We think this will be extremely big," said Gregor von Drabich-Waechter, whose Green Power East Africa has been running a biodiesel plant in Nairobi since last June.

The US, the world's biggest maize producer, is already pressed to meet its domestic demand for biofuels. Nearly a quarter of its annual 230 mm tons of maize output goes to ethanol production. That is with a requirement of just 4 % ethanol content in petrol -- a quota set roughly to double in a few years.
The EU, which is among those leading the push for cleaner fuels, faces a similar challenge and already imports much of its bioethanol from Brazil. In the long run, this may make a turn to Africa inevitable.

African governments seem to be taking their cue from their Western counterparts. Nigeria last year awarded two oil concessions to INC Resources after it committed $ 4 bn (R 29 bn) to an ethanol project in the northern state of Jigawa, while South Africa has unveiled a R 6 bn plan that hopes to see biofuels contribute up to 75 % of its energy needs by 2013.
For all its promise, though, analysts feel the commercial momentum threatens to overshadow food security, especially if it excludes Africa's many poor peasant farmers.

The best way to help people and secure food supplies was to teach more productive farming techniques, to ensure they became more than mere subsistence farmers and were a part of the biofuels boom, said Jeremy Wakeford of the University of Cape Town's School of Economics.
Local prices of maize have shot up since the beginning of the year on fears of a crop shortage and industry groups have asked the government to step in to curb food prices.

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