Kenya: Biofuels Likely to Boost Energy But Increase Hunger, Now Critics Warn
The Nation (Nairobi)
29 August 2007
Posted to the web 28 August 2007
Though biofuels are being touted as the solution to Africa's growing
energy crisis, not everybody is happy with the rising demand for biofuel
Already, some environmentalists have raised concern about the potential
threat to the continent's weak food security.
Although the use of bioenergy is yet to take root in Africa, there are
fears that farmers might shift from growing food crops whose prices have
remained low to biofuels which are currently attracting high prices in
the world market.
Biofuels are made from living things or the waste they produce.
Bioenergy includes all agro-energy and wood energy resources. The former
includes crops specifically grown for energy, such as sugarcane,
cassava, sorghum, maize, palm oil, oilseeds and various grasses.
Other agro-energy resources are agricultural and livestock by-products
such as straw, leaves, stalks, husks, shells, manure, droppings and any
food and agricultural processing and slaughter by-products.
Wood energy resources, on the other hand, comprise charcoal, forestry
residues, black liquor and any other energy derived from trees.
However, in recent years, the term "biofuel" has come to mean ethanol
and diesel, made from crops like maize and sugarcane.
In Europe, for example, a whole new economy is developing, where huge
investments are being made to turn cereal surpluses into fuels to be
used in the motor industry.
In fact, DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen are among the major industries
promoting the use of flexible-fuel vehicles - which can use synthetic
fuel derived from crops and organic material as well as petroleum or
diesel. The move is meant to reduce dependence on fossil fuels like
petrol and diesel.
It is the new technology that has left environmentalists a worried lot.
They argue that food aid for Africa's impoverished population may not be
available in future as surplus agricultural production in the developed
world will be diverted to produce bioenergy for the motor industry in
Europe and North America.
According to Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), though bioenergy
has the potential of improving the wellbeing of people in rural areas,
some types may compromise food security and also cause environmental damage.
"Development of the sector will require special government attention to
environmental and food security concerns," according to FAO, the
specialised United Nations organisation, that leads international
efforts to combat hunger.
The organisation argues that although there are many linkages between
traditional agricultural biomass and food security, rapid development of
liquid biofuels for transport has the greatest immediate impact on food
It says major agricultural producers, such as Brazil, the US, the EU and
Canada are expected to reduce exports of basic feedstock commodities
(for example, cereals or oilseeds) for use in domestic biofuels
industries and also increase imports of biofuels.
"Liquid biofuels derived from food crops may have different food
security implications than modern bioenergy systems based on waste
materials," the organisation warns.
As competition for arable land and water for biofuel production
increases, FAO predicts a sharp rise in world food prices.
"Countries that are importers of both food and energy could face some
serious challenges over time," the organisation adds.
The concern about biofuels is not only confined in West. In Kenya,
Climate Network Africa (CNA), an NGO dealing with environmental matters,
agrees with FAO.
According to Ms Grace Akumu of CNA, biofuels without strict regulations
can be catastrophic.
While local production of biofuels on a small scale of can boost local
energy production, as is the case with ethanol, the international market
can completely destroy available opportunities for sustainable production.
Ms Akumu cautions that the world could be aggravating the negative
effects of climate change by converting millions of acres into maize,
palm oil and soy fields.
"It is becoming clear that we could be making climate change even worse,
driving more species into extinction, and at the same time, threatening
food production," she adds.
The consequences of growing biofuel for export instead of growing food
for consumption in Africa could be severe.
"Using potential agricultural land and water to grow biofuel crops will
have a detrimental effect on food security in the continent that is
already struggling to feed its more than 800 million inhabitants, Ms
Despite the concerns, the biofuel craze is slowly catching up in Kenya.
The objective of the biofuel programme is to boost the country's energy
supply which has overtaken by rising demand.
Jatropha curcas, one of the success stories in the production of
biodiesel in Latin America and Asia has already been introduced in
several parts of Kenya.
An environmental organisation, Green Africa Foundation, is popularising
the plant among peasant farmers.
Some in Nyanza, Eastern, Coast and Rift Valley provinces have began
growing the plant. Other farmers have also began using the plant as a
source of fuel for household needs, thus saving on paraffin.
The organisation now plans to help the farmers produce oil in large
quantities for export to the developed world.
Despite the developments, Energy permanent secretary Patrick Nyoike said
that Kenya has a long way to go in the production of biofuels.
"Ours is still small scale and is being encouraged as an alternative
source of energy," he said.
A committee has been established involving representatives from the
energy sector and Government to promote the production of biofuels.
Mr Nyoike said that 10 energy centres have been opened in various parts
of Kenya to encourage the production of Jatropha curcas.
"Our objective is to form marketing structures for biofuels within the
next two to three years," he said.
Mumias Sugar Company is leading the way in the sugar sector by using
bagas to produce energy for domestic use and for sale.
The pro-biofuels group has rubbished the argument that biofuels are a
threat to Africa's food security, especially countries like Kenya,
Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Burundi where about 20 per cent of the
population is considered undernourished.
But the use of biofuels did not begin the other day. More than 50 years
ago, Henry Ford and Rudolph Diesel designed cars and engines that ran on
And even before World War II, the UK and Germany sold biofuels mixed
with petrol or diesel made from crude oil. However, it was the
availability of cheap oil that later drove the former products out of
The pro-biofuel group, majority of them based in the western world and
parts of Latin America, argue that what is holding back agriculture in
the developing world is not shortage of land, but poor prices in the
world markets caused by overproduction in Europe and the US.
The proponents also maintain that the demand for biofuels will help
change the situation by lifting prices and by mopping up the surpluses
to give third world farming a boost in terms of income.
The move, they maintain, will do more to alleviate starvation in Africa,
Asia and Latin America than all the food aid programmes put together.
This will help raise farm incomes in the rural areas, hence improving
the standards of living among a population that bears the brunt of after
effects of fluctuations of food prices.
In fact, Europe and Latin America are miles ahead in the production and
use of biofuels. In the EU, for example, the product is already being
promoted as an alternative energy source for transport.
Four years ago, the Europe Union set itself a target of increasing the
use of biofuels in energy consumption to 5.75 per cent by 2010.
Despite a 2007 progress report showing that it is likely to only achieve
a biofuels share of 4.2 per cent in that year, signs of a sharp increase
in demand in future cannot be ruled out as the world continues to look
for environment-friendly sources of energy.
In fact, the European Commission proposed in its 2007 "Energy Package"
to step up its effort and demanded a mandatory target of 10 per cent by
The United States has also crafted an energy and climate-change policy
that aims at reducing US petrol consumption by 20 per cent in the next
All the targets set will lead to an increased demand for biofuels,
probable result being more open land being cleared to grow biofuel crops
and surpluses diverted to produce bioenergy.
Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts: http://pacbiofuel.blogspot.com/