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European policies in support of biofuels have unfortunate consequences – western firms are taking over land in Africa to cultivate crops such as jatropha, essentially destroying local agriculture in the process. “These firms are creating a very poor impression of western countries in the eyes of Africans. People are alarmed over what could happen next,” says Francis Namu Njoka, a Kenyan biofuel and biomass expert.
Francis Namu Njoka / foto Glopolis
* E15: We receive reports from time to time here in Europe that the cultivation of biofuel crops in Africa results in the liquidation of local agriculture or even directly destroys the lives of villagers. How serious is the problem in reality?
It varies by country, but there are countries that have been heavily impacted by this problem. Foreign firms acquire land for cultivating biofuel crops and other commodities intended for export. We’ve seen two or three cases of land acquisition for these purposes in Kenya; in Tanzania there are many more, even if it isn’t clear how many international firms actually complete their projects. Some discover that they won’t reach their planned goals and that costs are too high.
* E15: Therefore, the problem isn’t the actual cultivation of biofuel crops but the fact that western firms export the products to Europe?
That is truly the main problem. The level of energy technology in Africa is low, but the development of local production is not flourishing. Investors from developed countries are arriving to acquire land to cultivate biofuel crops for their own markets. This naturally aggravates the situation in African agriculture and exacerbates the food crisis.
* E15: Who is responsible for these problems? The investors? Or the corrupt African governments?
I think the responsibility can be spread between the two groups. It’s up to each of them to reach reasonable agreements. You can’t just rush headlong into investment opportunities; you also need think about the consequences of these actions. In other words, investment projects of this type are more than just an economic matter. Does a specific company force people out of their homes or does it, on the other hand, offer locals employment opportunities? Does the company deplete their source of water? Does the investor leave space for wildlife to exist?
* E15: But foreign investors aren’t interested in much else besides turning a profit...
You’re right. But then, how sustainable will their investments be? That’s the main question.
* E15: To what extent are biofuel crops part of the food crisis in Africa?
The food crisis is truly linked to the cultivation of biofuel crops, but to climate matters as well. Africa has been hit hard by drought and flooding in recent years. The population is also growing; the amount of arable land is declining and poor agricultural practices have had a heavy impact on harvests. Biofuel crops are one of the causes.
* E15: What is public opinion on western investment in the cultivation of biofuel crops?
Africa has had a certain apprehension toward western countries for some time now. Similar investments can naturally continue to influence public opinion. This will create a very poor impression of western countries in the eyes of Africans. People are alarmed over what could happen next.
* E15: The Chinese are now very involved in the African economy. Do Africans have a different perception of Chinese investors than they do of westerners?
In any partnership, be it a marriage or some other relationship, there comes a time when you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to cut the ties or at least rejuvenate the relationship somehow. Africa’s ties to the western world – with Europe and America – have already lasted a certain amount of time, during which there have been both high and low points. China arrived as a new and largely unknown friend with whom people have little experience. So it’s impossible to compare.
* E15: Would you say then that Africans have a better image of the Chinese than westerners?
Yes, I would say so. The new partnership is not encumbered by any preconceptions. And yet, this doesn’t mean that we should blindly trust this new friend. No partnership exists without high and low moments.
* E15: Does the fact that the Chinese are not cultivating biofuel crops in Africa play a role in the way this nationality is perceived by Africans?
Politics are pushing Europe toward biofuel – individual countries must meet their European obligations. The Chinese, on the other hand, need land for food crops. They are acquiring large amounts of land to produce commodities for their own consumption, especially in Tanzania and Kenya. People don’t see it as such a bad thing – they take the cultivation of food crops as something positive. But in my opinion it comes to the same: Africans have nothing to gain in either case. On the other hand, the Chinese traditionally utilize human labour, so I assume that they will put people to work in Africa, which is a good thing for locals. Nevertheless, partnerships of this sort are usually not balanced, and we Africans lose out in trade relations.
* E15: So, is biofuel primarily a threat or an opportunity for you?
It is naturally an opportunity. More than 80% of Africans are still dependent on the traditional use of biomass, mainly the burning of wood. Of course, this has numerous detrimental impacts on the environment. Biofuel also offers a chance to improve air quality on the local level. The problem truly arises the moment you no longer produce the biofuel for you own consumption but for someone else.
* E15: Biofuel critics even suggest that biofuels could be responsible for higher greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and the depletion of water supplies. Does it make any sense to support biofuel?
These things shouldn’t be generalized in this way. There are relatively vast areas of the world that could be used for cultivating biofuel crops. Naturally, whenever you destroy a forest, wilderness or any area with great biodiversity, it will probably have a negative impact on greenhouse gas levels. I believe it is necessary to grow biofuel crops on land that was previously barren; in this way we can achieve a positive effect even with regard to carbon dioxide emissions. But this depends on a lot of other factors – for example, whether you use heavy machinery to cultivate the land or use human labour, or whether you use chemical or organic fertilizers.
* E15: Transporting biofuels great distances also increases emissions...
Transportation is only a small part of the problem. You need to look at the entire life cycle of the product. What’s important is whether carbon dioxide savings are achieved by production itself in comparison with the prior use of the land. You also need to compare the cultivation of biofuel crops with all of the other possible land uses. And when we consider the cost of transporting biofuels, it is also necessary to factor in the transport of fertilizers.
* E15: Some critics have even claimed that the production of certain amounts of biofuel requires more petroleum than the biofuel is able to replace. Do you see any danger in this?
Certainly – that is another critical matter that needs to be assessed. It is necessary to study the overall energy balance. Regardless of whether you cultivate biofuel crops on previously arable or barren land, it is possible that you could consume a disproportionate amount of energy to obtain the final product. And you truly produce less biofuel than the energy you consume. Energy costs must always be calculated precisely, even in the case that you are not cultivating biofuel crops but other agricultural goods.
* E15: We are still speaking about the first generation of biofuel, the results of which are not quite as rosy as many people had anticipated. The second generation will apparently produce better results. Do you agree with this assessment?
Yes and no. We saw many regional differences with the first generation of biofuel. In the western world biofuel is often a side product of food commodities. This isn’t true in Africa. The second generation of biofuel will utilize plants high in lignin or cellulose. But this could also have side effects. For example, how would today’s forests be affected? In each phase of biofuel development it is necessary to have a strategy for the sustainable development of each individual type of biofuel. Whenever you replace original vegetation with something else, you run the risk of losing biodiversity.
* E15: Does this mean that the combination of traditional crops grown for food with a secondary use for biofuel production makes sense?
Definitely – this is still very important.
* E15: You studied in Germany, a country with one of the highest levels of enthusiasm for renewable sources of energy in the world. What is your opinion on this enthusiasm?
Renewable energy sources face a difficult road ahead. This enthusiasm also influences me; renewable energy is something that I am very interested in. It requires support. But you can’t change everything overnight without thinking about the possible consequences. I naturally don’t see renewable energy as the pinnacle of technologies; even better possibilities could emerge.
* E15: What could these be?
It’s hard to say, but perhaps nanotechnology. There are a lot of different ideas. They just need to be taken out of the laboratory and put into practice.
Francis Namu Njoka is a research assistant at the Institute of Energy and Environmental Technology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi, Kenya. He studied renewable energy sources at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. He is currently involved in the research of biofuels, biomass, biogas and other alternative energy sources. Mr. Njoka is an expert on the energy situation in African countries.
This interview with Francis Namu Njoka was published on 28. 3. 2012 in the E15 daily. The author is Jan Žižka.