Lagging behind in the Biofuel Race

A pan-African ministerial meeting held in 2007 in Maputo, Mozambique marked a turning point. African ministers responsible for energy development in their countries announced a declaration committing to increased research in the development of renewable energy — notably biofuels. This made many investors take a keen interest in the production of biofuels in Africa. But despite the efforts made to bring biofuel to the forefront of Africa, the progress seems to stall. For instance, a biodiesel project that was seen as one of Rwanda’s solutions to its high energy bill ran into trouble. The government launched the pilot biodiesel and bioethanol production plant in Mulindi in Kigali in the hope it would reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, whose prices are unpredictable. However, seven years later, the pilot plant constructed at a cost of over $260,000, and partly funded by the Swedish government, failed to attract much investment. The government registered the Rwanda Biodiesel Company to be managed under a public private partnership to start commercial production of biodiesel; but it seems to remain only on paper. Scientists at the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (IRST) blame the stalling of the project on the Ministry of Education, which they accuse of sitting on a policy that is crucial to promotion of biodiesel exploration, production and use. They formulated the policy and asked the ministry to present it to the Cabinet. This is yet to be done. According to the plan, trees grown on 225,000 hectares would make Rwanda self-reliant in biodiesel by 2025.

However, with the delay Rwanda continues to depend on diesel from fossil fuels to run the thermal power plants that produce 50 per cent of the country’s 120 MW of power. According to the National Bank of Rwanda, the country spent $95.9 million on fuel imports in the first six months of 2010. The figure rose to $140.4 million in the same period in 2011, before peaking at $165.6 million in the first six months of 2012. In addition, in 2010, at least 92,000 tonnes of fuel was imported. It increased to 102,000 tonnes in 2011, before settling at 116,000 tonnes last year. Petroleum products make up 94.7 per cent of the total fuel imports. It also means that Rwandans will continue suffering the pollution from fossil fuels whose carbon emission is far above the globally recommended 50 percent. Without new investors, the project is producing just 2,000 litres of biofuel daily against a projection of 50,000 litres, which would have cut Rwanda’s fossil fuel imports by 15 percent. Biodiesel is obtained from Jatropha and Moringa trees, and farmers who had been encouraged to grow some of these plants to cash in on the project now have no market. The delay of the project — the first of its kind in the region — has raised concern from environmentalists about the seriousness in fighting pollution in Rwanda. The environmentalists say the level of pollution in Kigali city has reached alarming levels, with electricity poles that were once cream -colored turning black, and plants getting stunted. This is not the first time a project meant to change the lives of Rwandans and address the country’s needs to reduce the cost of doing business is stalling. Rwandans are still waiting for the multi million-dollar Karismbi Integrated Project, which was to act as a driving engine in telecommunications industry. A methane project, which was set to process the gas as fuel to generate much-needed electricity also stalled. It was hoped that the project would drive industries and light homes. Despite the frustrating delays to Rwanda’s quest for biofuel independence, there are strides that have been made. Such as Rwanda's first biodiesel bus that made its inaugural trip from the capital Kigali to the town of Akanyuru on the border with Burundi. The Rwanda Biodiesel Express runs entirely on oil plants, animal fats and even used cooking oil from restaurants. The BBC's Geoffrey Mutagoma, who attended the inauguration, says that it took three years to develop the bus. But researchers estimate that 225,000 hectares of oil plants - such as avocado, moringa and jatropha - would be needed to supply the whole of Rwanda with bio-diesel. This represents about 8.5% of the country's total area and has led some to doubt whether Rwanda is big enough to make bio-diesel a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Increased attention on biofuel research and development is, however, bringing a new debate to the continent. There is the worry that an increase in the use of food crops such as maize, cassava and sorghum is likely to increase the food price of most staple foods in Africa,-notably corn. "Price rise will depend on whether or not oil crops are planted on arable land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops, and whether water is diverted from food crops to irrigate the biofuel plantations," says Jeremy Wakeford, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The debate of crops for food versus crops for biofuels remains one of the major problems yet to be resolved in the sector. And it may affect Africa even if the continent does not enter the biofuels market. The triple challenge facing Africa is achieving food security, energy security and sustainable development. Biofuels provides an opportunity to harness Africa's vast biomass resources, but for that more research on better yielding crops, production methods, and use is needed. The journey has only just begun.