Steering well clear of industrial approaches, various initiatives are seeking to test alternative energy access models for rural communities in Africa. The distinction is clear between intensively farmed biofuel crops and production by farmers for local uses, but there is a fear that support from international co-operation agencies for these vital local initiatives could fall away.
Farmer biofuels: a way to reconcile food and energy needs
GERES and IRAM are supporting trials of farmer biofuels which can, without competing with food crops, offer a sustainable, participatory energy solution and play a role in local food security.
The approach adopted in the projects run by GERES and IRAM with stakeholders in West Africa since 2007 is dynamic action research. These projects are aimed at the emergence of environmentally friendly energy alternatives that can foster the development of family farming.
Emphasis is placed on developing solutions compatible with food crops. In these projects, jatropha is grown in agro-forestry schemes or as live hedging on a small scale, using for instance less than 5% of the area cultivated per farm. Good environmental practices are tried out, such as not irrigating fields, using organic fertilizers and minimizing transportation (with a short supply chain confined to a municipality or rural district). Production-related carbon emissions will then be negligible and the replacement of diesel by pure vegetable oil means fewer carbon emissions from the same activity.
The aim of developing farmer biofuels is to encourage a complementary crop (such as jatropha) to address both local energy needs and food security issues. In West Africa, post-harvest losses can be as much as 30% in some areas, particularly due to the lack of efficient means of storing and processing raw produce. Energy can be harnessed to mechanize cereal production and increase yields, improve transport and the processing and conservation of produce, but also for domestic uses or even electrification of the most isolated areas. In this way, rural communities’ access to a local energy source cheaper than diesel can provide a real boost for the local economy and efforts to combat poverty.
Whilst the logic of intensive production can tip people into poverty, the short supply chain production model is designed to distribute benefits fairly.
This approach, based on a dynamic process of local organization, dialogue and consultation, encourages strong involvement by local authorities, government decision-makers, farmer organizations and local NGOs. It promotes rural entrepreneurship and also supports stakeholder networking to share experience and disseminate information. This could lead to more account being taken in public policy-making of the specific features of short rural supply chains. These elements offer safeguards to ensure that regulation of the biofuel sector does not ignore landholding and food security issues.
Action research into short rural supply chains is well worth supporting
GERES and IRAM are flagging up the risks of any reduction in funding for farmer biofuel projects.
Access to energy is one of the major development challenges for countries in the South. People are demanding access to modern energy for essential needs, such as cooking and lighting, a world away from the overconsumption and wastage common in developed countries.
In West Africa, farmer biofuel initiatives currently receive backing from national policies designed to promote access to energy in rural areas. Against a background of heavy dependency on fossil fuels which are almost certain to increase in cost, farmer-centred approaches are now seen as an opportunity to boost both family farming and energy independence. In a situation where interplay between stakeholders can sometimes be complex, these positions must continue to be defended.
In addition, policy-makers still have important work to do in designing models adapted to particular areas and coming up with energy mixes capable of guaranteeing viability in technical, economic, social and environmental terms. Countries can draw on objective data obtained from ongoing trials to build their strategies.
Projects like those run by stakeholders involved in the Jatroref project in West Africa (www.jatroref.org) are precisely working to establish a reliable frame of reference and therefore have a key role to play in the long-term development of solutions compatible with family farming.
These positions are now supported by many in the international co-operation sector and, in France, by the inter-ministerial working group on food security (Groupe Interministériel sur la Sécurité Alimentaire – GISA). However, any turnaround in attitudes to farmer biofuel trials could choke off the endeavours of some countries to come up with alternative ways of resolving their energy challenges, at the very time that solutions for rural communities are beginning to emerge.
Recommendations from GERES and IRAM
- Make the distinction, systematically, between farmer biofuel supply chains and their benefits and the logic of intensive biofuel cropping
- Support ongoing trials and foster sharing of good practice concerning farmer-centred approaches with all stakeholders
|GERES – Groupe Énergies Renouvelables, Environnement et Solidarités
2, cours Foch – 13400 Aubagne – France
|IRAM – Institut de Recherches et d’Applications des Méthodes de développement
49 rue de la Glacière – 75013 Paris – France