African biofuel sector discuss sustainable targets in S'bosch

“You are working on important issues – how future generations will live, what should drive the economy of the next decades, and how the human development of this continent will happen, without which the world will not become a better place. Africa has to shape up and take care of itself.”

With these words Prof Russel Botman, Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University (SU) opened the African Convention of the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project (GSB) taking place in Stellenbosch.

The event is hosted by Stellenbosch University and organised by Prof Emile van Zyl, research chair in biofuels and other clean alternative fuels at Stellenbosch University, Prof Lee Lynd of Dartmouth University and Dr Miyuki Iiyama of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

The African Convention is the second in the series of five conventions to be held around the world as part of the GSB project which aims to establish guidelines for a sustainable global biofuels industry.

“This is a unique platform for stakeholders and scientific experts on the continent to actively discuss and plan together around the future of biofuels in an African context,” says Prof van Zyl.

Prof Russel Botman with convention organisers Dr Miyuki Iiyama (ICRAF), Prof Lee Lynd (Dartmouth College) and Prof Emile van Zyl (Stellenbosch University). Photo: SCPS

It is expected that a draft African Resolution with feasible targets for sustainable bioenergy production will be drawn up on the final day of the meeting (Friday) to highlight specific continental and regional opportunities and challenges. This will be added to those arising from similar conferences GSB is holding in the next few months across the five continents to form a Global Resolution later this year.

In his opening address, Prof Botman said it is important that universities, as knowledge drivers, are centrally involved in initiatives such as bioenergy because of “the challenge to pioneer a new path for a new future”.

 His sentiments were echoed in the last presentation of the day by GSB initiator Prof Lee Lynd of Dartmouth University.

“Sustainable resources are the defining challenge of our time. There have really only been two major resource transitions in human history before: going from a hunting and gathering society to a pre- industrial agricultural society, and going from a pre-industrial agricultural society to a pre-sustainable industrial society which is where we are now.

“We need to undergo this third transition and if we fail it will be a great tragedy for humanity,” was Prof Lynd’s motivational words to participants.
“For an African Sustainable Bioenergy Vision, we need an understanding of Africa and of bioenergy,” he said. “Such a vision should be responsive to the most pressing needs of poverty alleviation, economic development and food security to ensure that it is to the benefit of the continent and its residents.”

Day 1 of the convention provided attendees with food for thought on the energy and biofuels situation in Africa.

 Dr Miyuki Iiyama of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) discussed the opportunities and challenges in research and policy in Africa. She stressed the importance of suitable policies, and the inadequacy of current knowledge in the field.

“We need to balance bioenergy development goals with other primary goals,” Dr Iiyama says.

She believes it may take up to 10 years to fully develop and complete the fundamental research needed in the sector. “We need to coordinate multi-disciplinary research at national levels on issues such as domestication, productivity, soil quality, climate change, value chain management, business models and environmental services.

On an environmental level Dr Iiyama said the use of uncultivated plant material as a source of biofuels may raise issues of sustainability and ecosystem resilience. She also noted the monitoring of net greenhouse gas emissions from different biofuels as a challenge.

Ms Lorna Omuodo, founder of the Vanilla-Jathropa Foundation in Kenya listed economic and social development, gender and health, climate change mitigation, food security and energy, biodiversity, water, soil and forestry management and biofuel fair-trade as issues that relate to sustainable biofuels development in Africa.

She said that feedstock awareness, land ownership, policy support, affordable financing, institutional capacity and awareness, and local technology production could be possible barriers in biofuels development in Sub-Suharan Africa.

“In recent years several developing countries have gained positive experiences with the decentralized and small-scale production and use of fuel crops. A number of projects and organizations have shown that the production and use of liquid biofuels from local feedstock can make a positive contribution to improving access to sustainable and affordable energy,” Ms Omuodo believes.

According to Ms Omuodo, more than 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity in their homes and rely on the unsustainable forms of solid biomass such as fire wood, agricultural residues and animal wastes to meet basic energy needs for cooking, heating, and lighting.

Mrs Annie Chimphango, a lecturer at the Department of Process Engineering at Stellenbosch University, gave a country-specific perspective to the energy situation in Africa when she highlighted the situation in Malawi where only 2% of the population of 13 million people have access to electricity.

She said that scientists could take note of indigenous knowledge in, for instance, the brewing of traditional beer, charcoal production and oil production when they develop new technology for the biofuels industry. “Beer brewing and biofuels production both have fermentation as their basics,” she explained.

 The role of the sugarcane industry in the bioenergy sector was highlighted by two speakers, Prof Luís Cortez of Unicamp in Brazil and Mr Wolfgang Fechter from Tongaat Hulett in South Africa.

Prof Cortez said Brazil’s concerted efforts since the 1970s to become less dependent on oil has paid off to make it a model in the biofuels industry, with 50% of liquid fuels used in its local light vehicle fleet being made from ethanol. “You do not get pure gasoline at the pumps anywhere in Brazil,” he explained.

Brazil produces sugar and ethanol at the lowest cost in the world. According to Prof Cortez, sugarcane ethanol presents the best energy balance among biofuel sources, and that it is the best alternative to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

He listed the dynamic relationship between research and production since 1975, which involved both government and the private sector, as one of the reasons for Brazil’s success.

According to Mr Fechter, the sugarcane industry in the Southern African Development Countries (SADC) region has the same potential as Brazil and that all future demand growth in petrol can be met with ethanol.

However, he stressed that for this to happen the necessary support is needed from government. “The process started to develop policies across departments needs to be strengthened and extended,” he believes.

“Southern African countries cannot walk the path alone but as a region there are sufficient resources to make it happen,” Mr Fechter believes.

Caption: Prof Russel Botman with convention organisers Dr Miyuki Iiyama (ICRAF), Prof Lee Lynd (Dartmouth College) and Prof Emile van Zyl (Stellenbosch University). Photo: SCPS