Biofuels offer the biggest and most secure market for agriculture in southern Africa and could help ease the region’s electricity woes in the future, a biofuels conference heard March 31.
Erhard Seilar, chief executive of the Southern African Biofuels Association, said the region’s farming sector stood to gain most from the growth of the fledgling sector, which has been touted as a partial solution to Africa’s energy problems.
“In our view, biofuels offer the largest stable market for agriculture in southern Africa,” Seilar told the 4th African biofuels conference. “Biodiesel and bioethanol producers are also potential co-generators of electricity.”
He said farmers in the region needed to start growing crops that would be specifically used to make biofuels, and calm fears about biofuels production threatening food security.
Hopes are high that the growth of the biofuel industry in Africa could reduce the continent’s reliance on expensive fuel imports through the use of biodiesel and bioethanol.
Africa is a minor biofuel producer with an ageing vehicle fleet largely run on diesel, and ill-adapted for conversion to biofuel use.
However, some countries like Malawi have been producing sugarcane-based ethanol for more than 30 years, and a new shift towards the use of jatropha – a non-food crop whose oil can be used to produce biodiesel and which poses less of a threat to food security – is emerging.
Experts say Africa is well-suited to biofuel production because it has plenty of available land, a climate fit for different biofuel feedstocks, and low labour costs.
But investment in the sector has been hampered by poor infrastructure, underdeveloped legislation and a loose regulatory framework.
Farming groups and companies in the industry have urged governments to fast track policies and laws to develop the continent’s biofuels sector.
Some experts said governments were concerned about food security, and biofuels lobby groups need to find a way of assuring governments that food security would not be affected.
“One of the biggest problems that we have is the lack of political will, particularly in the southern and central Africa context,” Adrian Wynne, industrial affairs director at the South Africa Canegrowers Association’s said.