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Africa Looks Toward Biofuels Amid Yield Doubts

By Nico Colombant

Africa Looks Toward Biofuels Amid Doubts Over Yields

African government officials, economists and scientists have met for three days in Burkina Faso to discuss the local production and use of biofuels. An official with the Economic Community of West African States, Thierno Bocar Fall, cannot contain his enthusiasm while talking about one bio-fuel project in Ghana.

"We are financing a project in Ghana in biofuel," he said. "In five to 10 years we will have one million hectares. Ghana will produce 600,000 tons. It is around 80 percent of the importation of their diesel. [Can] you evaluate the money that Ghana can save? How many billions?"

Charles Jumbe, from Malawi's Center for Agricultural Research and Development, says this is one economic revolution Africa cannot afford to miss.

"In Europe and America, the push for bio-fuel is rife," he noted. "We cannot sit back and watch. We need to act. We have huge resources in terms of land and water that can provide adequate biofuels for the next generation. All we need is to have our national governments get prepared, and prepare the proper policies and strategies."

Another point the experts and officials agree on, including ECOWAS's Fall, is to protect the food-producing agricultural sector.

"The good land is for agriculture," he said. "We have to know that. The degraded land can be used for biofuel and to plant trees like jatropha, to develop that."

Andre Croppenstedt, with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, who has been on trips to Africa to study these prospects, offered a more sober perspective.

Jatropha, a shrub used for decades in Africa as a natural fence between crops, has been hyped in the media as a biofuel, but he says it is too early to tell.

"From what I have heard there was very little knowledge about jatropha in terms of the behavior of the plant, the plantation level and so on, how the pests respond, [and] if you grow it at scale," he explained. "So the people we talked to who were actually into jatropha gave us the impression that they were going down this road, they were seeing an opportunity, but they themselves were not quite sure of what the yields would be like."

Experts at the conference agreed Africa has been looking more at a small-scale production of biofuel.

Croppenstedt says there are other options besides jatropha, which may be more economically viable.

"Palm oil, I think in Central Africa, there is some discussion of that," he added. "In West Africa, depending on the country, I have heard of people looking at cassava in the case of Benin, I think [also] sugar cane. I think the issue then would be what is commercially viable and probably if you are looking at it now, sugar cane is the one that makes the most sense, where people are willing to put their money for ethanol."

And the U.N. economist says he believes refining biofuels will be much easier and cheaper than for other energy products.

"I understand that with biodiesel for example, it is fairly straightforward, relatively low investment costs, and a lot of simple machines can either run on straight vegetable oil, pure vegetable oil or biodiesel," he noted.

He says if proper investment is put in place, biofuels could soon be produced and used locally in Africa for powering generators, small appliances and also for rural electricity plans.


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