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ENERGY: Project May Boost Biofuels in East Africa

Michael Deibert

PARIS, Oct 30 2007 (IPS) - A new project to develop an integrated sugarcane facility in Kenya could be a boost for biofuels production in east Africa.

The Ngima Project at Homa Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria (‘‘ngima’’ is the word for ‘‘life’’ in the local Luo language) is looking to foster a dual export and domestic system of sugarcane production, concentrating on both white sugar and biofuel production.

Biofuels, loosely defined as liquid or gas fuels derived from biomass, produce significantly less ozone-damaging carbon emissions than fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. A large swath of southern Africa, including Angola, Mozambique and South Africa, has already proved fertile ground for those seeking an alternative to fossil fuels.

European companies, led by the Brussels-based company HG Consulting, aim to spend 330 million euros on the start-up costs of the project. According to HG Consulting, at least 5 percent of the Ngima Project will belong to the sugarcane growers.

Staff will benefit from housing, a hospital, an elementary school and a secondary school which are to be built on the premises, according to HG Consulting.

‘‘There are so many contributions that the biofuel industry could make if it’s well taken care of in terms of policies and stakeholders in the industry,’’ says Tiberius Barasa, assistant research fellow at the governance and development programme at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Nairobi, Kenya.

‘‘In Kenya, most of our income comes from agriculture and tourism, but the agricultural income hasn’t been exploited to the fullest,’’ Barasa argues.

Encompassing the Homa Bay areas of Gwassi, Ndhiwa, Nyatike, Rangwe and Rongo, the project seeks, once it reaches full capacity, to produce an annual amount of 100,000 metric tonnes of white plantation sugar for domestic sale and an additional 259 million litres of fuel-grade ethanol for the export market, according to a press statement released by HG Consulting.

Ethanol for Kenya’s domestic biofuel market, which is still in its infancy, is also a stated goal of the undertaking.

‘‘Kenya has the agricultural capacity to produce biofuel at a good price while, geographically, being well-placed for access to the Asia market,’’ says Pierre Alain Puippe, global manager for biofuels at Fair Energy, a Geneva-based oil and biofuel company that will be one of the major stakeholders in the Ngima Project.

‘‘At the same time, Kenya is not a small country and can also develop an internal biofuel market,” according to Puippe.

The hope is also that the bagasse produced by the facility will be enough to make the project self-sustainable in terms of its own electricity needs. Moreover, an additional 225,000 MWh of ‘‘green electricity’’ will be supplied to Kenya’s national power grid. Bagasse is the biomass left behind after sugarcane stalks have been crushed for their juice.

‘‘Homa Bay currently doesn’t have any sugar factories. Right now they have a shortfall in sugar production,’’ says Abdelmuniam Kardash, a senior engineer with Kenana Engineering and Technical Services (KETS) in Khartoum, Sudan, who served as project manager for the Ngima Project’s Feasibility Study.

‘‘In terms of logistics, (the Kenyan port of) Mombasa is not far from there, and the community support – from Homa bay officials, from the farmers – is tremendous.’’

It is also envisaged that, under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism (CDM) projects, the Ngima Project will qualify for 217,000 tonnes worth of certified emissions reductions (CERs), or carbon credits.

The project could represent a new step for biofuel development in east Africa. Thus far, perhaps the biggest impact in the biofuel industry has been felt in the clutch of Lusophone Africa countries that hug the continent’s southern coasts.

Working in close collaboration with the government of Brazil’s President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, countries such as Angola and Mozambique have joined forces with Brazilian companies like Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company, on projects such as the development of soybean-based biofuel. Brazil’s own biofuel industry has mushroomed over the past decade.

The developments in the biofuel industry dovetails with the European Union’s recently expressed interest in Africa as energy source.

The industry has not been without controversy, however, with some warning that Kenya should try and avoid some of the difficulties that have occurred in other countries which have jumped on the biofuels bandwagon.

‘‘At the moment Kenya, like many African countries, is facing a problem of food shortages,’’ says Barasa. ‘‘If, in the future, we are to use some of our corn or soy beans to produce biofuels, we could affect the supply of food in the country.’’

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