Farmers and Big Oil - How about some cassava in your tank?
There’s nothing highbrow about the investment opportunity Franklin Alli proposes in his April 28 article in Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper. If you’re planning to go into a business, he says, consider cassava. Called manioc in some countries, cassava often is described as “white gold” because of the many lucrative uses for its tubers and high-protein leaves, including edible products, starch, pharmaceutical products, livestock feeds and, yes, ethanol.
Ethanol has become the poster product for the shift from fossil fuels to biofuels as crude oil, and consequently gasoline, prices soar to teeth-clenching levels for consumers. Exacerbating the price squeeze, notes Peter Kegode, a sugar industry and ethanol specialist in Kenya, is the disruption of Nigeria’s crude oil supplies due to civil unrest, the standoff between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear ambitions and China’s voracious appetite for energy to support its industrial growth. Added to all this are predictions that petroleum production will peak sometime before 2020.
Nowhere has the case been made for ethanol and other plant-derived fuels more than in Brazil, where some 4 million vehicles run on ethanol alone and 25 percent of the regular fuel supply is plant-derived. According to the Council for Biotechnology Information (www.whybiotech.com), Brazil’s use of ethanol and other biofuels has replaced oil imports worth about $120 billion.
All this is good news for Africa’s farmers—particularly sugarcane farmers—and the continent’s largely agriculture-based economies. The European Union’s decision to slash the guaranteed price of sugar imported from its member countries’ former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific is wreaking havoc on the sugar industry in those countries. The industry’s conversion to ethanol production could alleviate a great deal of economic angst.
Most of the biofuels used today are derived from corn, soybeans and sugarcane. But all across Africa, academic, government and corporate research centers are studying other biofuel sources, including cassava, sunflower seeds and even shea butter. The International Energy Agency predicts farmers could supply the world with about 10 percent of its gasoline by 2025, if costs continue to decline and governments support expansion of biofuels.
There are encouraging signs of support for biofuels in Africa.
- In May, Actis Capital LLP, a private equity fund with a $3 billion portfolio, allocated $100 million for investment in agri-business in sub-Saharan Africa.
- * South Africa's Energy Development Corp., a division of the state-owned Central Energy Fund, is buying a 25.1 percent stake in Ethanol Africa, a company set up by commercial farmers to turn surplus corn into environment-friendly biofuel. Also in South Africa, a biodiesel plant in Wesselsbron operates on locally grown sunflower seeds. The plant has a 5,000-liter-per-day capacity.
- Kenya is moving into the biofuel supply chain using commodities such as sugarcane, maize and sorghum. The country has two ethanol plants but needs five—two in maize-producing regions and three in sugar-producing zones to assure adequate supplies for domestic blending or export, Kegode says.
- n Namibia, so-called invader bush presents a unique opportunity for farmers to become electricity suppliers to the local market, which is plagued by a power crunch. The bush has infested 26,000 hectares of land, threatening the sustainability of the beef industry. Opportunities exist to use the bush for biomass energy, such as cooking fuel, large-scale electricity generation, charcoal production and ethanol production. The Namibia Agricultural Union’s Bush Utilization and Debushing Committee has compiled a project proposal that is available to investors.
Investment in Nigeria’s cassava sector is becoming attractive to small- and medium-sized investors since the government declared that cassava flour must constitute 10 percent of bread flour. To date, officials say, only 3 million hectares of Nigeria’s more than 70 million hectares of agriculturally suitable land is being cultivated annually to produce 45 million metric tons of cassava tubers (19 percent of the world’s production). The potential clearly exists for cassava production to satisfy both subsistence and commercial demand, Alli says.
- Swaziland’s sugar industry, once the country’s top export earner, is turning to ethanol production in a desperate bid to keep itself alive. Swaziland is a beneficiary of the EU’s price subsidy. The EU also purchased 30 percent of the country’s production. Last year, EU officials renegotiated their contract and are paying 37 percent less for Swazi sugar, throwing thousands out of work. The Royal Swaziland Sugar Corp. can distill 14 million liters of ethanol annually, but a $21 million Ethanol Expansion Project is expected to boost capacity to 32 million liters a year. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Logichem has been working on a $17.3 million distillation facility since September 2005, with a view toward exporting Swazi ethanol to Southern Africa and elsewhere.
By Rosalind McLymont