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What next for Africa’s biofuel industries?

The sentencing of a supposed US biofuel entrepreneur on fraud charges earlier this year drew something of a line under a distinctly unsavoury saga, but it only told one small part of a much bigger story.

In that particular case, the fraud was so extensive that no African biofuel plant – the theme of the scam – was ever actually set up. However, in several other much higher-profile cases, the failure of one of these initiatives has occurred much further along in the development and production process.

When that happens, the fate of the corporation involved tends to dominate the headlines; less widely reported are the frequently catastrophic effects on local African communities, where already poor residents are often left considerably worse off when the dust settles.

Let’s rewind a little. After the world economy tanked in 2007, the market for a cheaper, more sustainable fuel source was huge. With biofuels increasingly cited as a great new global opportunity, Africa was well placed to play a key role, and its vast tracts of land at bargain prices soon began to attract heavy state, NGO and foreign business investment towards sub-Saharan biofuel development.

Unsurprisingly, several of these massive projects were unsuccessful – a 2011 short film made by Guardian journalists and ActionAid famously explored the high-profile collapse of British company Sun Biofuels, and the devastating impact it had on nearby Tanzanian communities.

The danger arises because most of the local residents in these areas, whether directly involved in the new developments or not, aren’t properly consulted and involved during the pre-planning stages.

Sometimes this results in a perfectly well-intentioned corporation moving in and beginning to implement a very western version of what ‘sustainability’ ought to look like – which doesn’t chime at all with what it looks like to nearby farming communities, and leads to conflict.

In more disastrous cases, it can mean that residents are left with insufficient legal protections and land rights, and find themselves unable to pursue subsistence following a collapse or takeover.

One of many notable academic studies into the problem examined the extent to which African biofuel developments of recent years have been built around western environmental and market policies, rather than around the needs and concerns of local people.

Among its key findings was the idea that ‘For local communities, the sustainability of a company’s operations is judged by the extent to which it adversely impacts upon their livelihoods, and if it does so, whether they have been left with adequate alternative livelihood strategies.’

Biofuel, it should be noted, was already a fairly controversial branch of the global warming debate before the first major development collapsed in Africa. The biofuel theory is sound enough: the intensive plant farming needed to sustains the industry in turn helps to absorb its emissions, making it far more carbon-neutral than burning fossil fuels.

However, new research suggests only around 37% of the CO2 released by burning biofuels will be reabsorbed, so in reality the greenhouse effect is merely slowed; as with so many environmental hot topics, the most enthusiastic proponents tend to overstate its potential.

Clearly any improvement at all is a blessing in the current political climate, though – and, moreover, helping to develop a successful biofuel industry could be of colossal value to Africa in particular. After all, many regions still experience sporadic shortages of traditional fuels that in turn drive sudden price spikes and further limit people’s productivity and access to livelihoods.

The challenge in the immediate future, then, is finding a way to shift the debate and consultation processes entirely out of western corporate/think tank environments, and relocate it to those regions in Africa where frontline production is taking place; where its impact is most keenly felt.

If residents’ rights are properly protected, if international business practices are made suitably transparent, and if a model of sustainability can be arrived at that works for both global markets and local sub-Saharan communities, then it’s fair to assume that biofuels could indeed offer a bright future for Africa. We certainly have a lot of work to do before we get there, though.

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