Agrofuels threat looms in Africa

While community cultivation of agrofuel crops in the African continent for local use may be a sustainable source of higher income for farmers, the current land grab by corporations for the large-scale and export-driven expansion of agrofuel production has ominous implications. The article below reveals the looming threat in Africa.

The article was published in Third World Resurgence No. 223 (Mar 2009).

With best wishes,
Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,
10400 Penang,

Agrofuels: The corporate plunder of Africa
Nnimmo Bassey

AS I sat watching a news programme on television the other day, I was struck by the news that crude oil price had slid to less than US$50 per barrel. One could not help but think about the implications of this price slump and the economic model that is bringing about so much uncertainty. Just a few months ago the price of a barrel of crude had hit US$150 and was straining to burst through the roof. US$50/barrel is the lowest crude has hit in about three years. This will signal a relief for energy-deficient countries, especially those in Africa, whose resources have been hugely impacted by high crude oil prices. Other questions arise, however. Will this slump mean a slowing down on efforts to develop and promote alternative and renewable energy sources? Will this slump kill off the march towards huge investments in agrofuels and in newer-generation bio-fuels?

Agrofuels have been portrayed as the 'green' and golden solution to the energy and ecological problems in the world. The European and American governments, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and multinational agribusiness, oil and transport companies are promoting agrofuels as a solution to world energy needs.  Africa looms large on the radar of agrofuels promoters and African governments see in this a potential for energy sovereignty and other benefits. 

The rush for African land

The most common and prodigious kinds of crops needed for agrofuels grow best in tropical climates found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With a persistent picture of Africa as a hopeless continent with a vast land good, the continent is often seen through no other filter than those that suggest her exploitation.1 It is equally well known that the continent is viewed as being over-populated with a huge army of hungry folk. One would expect that such a 'densely populated continent' would have precious little land to play with. However, energy-hungry and importing countries of the North and their agribusiness partners now insist that Africa has so much unused land which they characterise as marginal lands that can now be put to better use to save the world from an energy crunch. Without any evidence of rigorous science, we are told that Africa's marginal lands should be turned into jatropha plantations. In fact, the UN estimates that Africa has at least 500 million hectares of marginal, unused and underused land and that the Democratic Republic of Congo is believed to have around 150 million hectares.2

Furthermore, agrofuels are presented as a sustainable source of higher income for farmers and the business is touted as a ready avenue for employment opportunities for youths.

Agrofuels for a 'green OPEC'?

The president of Senegal inaugurated the so-called 'green OPEC' in 2006. The green OPEC, the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association (PANPP), is made up of 13 countries without crude oil, but which are poised to become exporters of agrofuels possibly by converting cultivable lands into fuel-crop farms.

According to President Wade, 'The members of PANPP aspire to become leaders in the field of biofuels and alternative energy strategies, following in Brazil's footsteps. But the development of a biofuels industry, particularly cellulosic biofuels made from agricultural wastes and prairie grasses (which President Bush touted in his State of the Union address) could take a decade or more to come to fruition. Africa needs help today.'3

A statement by an American commentator provides a good lesson for Africa. He wrote, 'The only economical way to make ethanol right now is with corn, which means the burgeoning industry is literally eating America's lunch, not to mention its breakfast and dinner.'4 The obvious downside of the investment in large-scale/commercial production of agrofuels has been variously documented. Shifting from fossil fuels to agrofuels following the same market paradigm will not increase the poor's access to energy but would aggravate existing problems such as land grabs and create particular challenges to food supplies due to a shift from food cropping to fuel cropping. 

African governments have largely accepted the notion that agrofuels are the panacea to a host of challenges facing the continent. It does appear that such a stand is based on the propensity to adopt externally suggested paths and solutions. The example of the devastating impacts of various structural adjustment programmes imposed on the continent by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is clear for all to see. An analyst noted that many of the African countries that received intensive treatment from structural adjustment had negative or zero growth. In a rather sharp summation of the continent's dilemma, it has been said that almost all recent cases of collapse into anarchy have been preceded by heavy World Bank and IMF involvement.5

Why agrofuels?

The craze for agrofuels has been largely driven in Africa by the global North, to purportedly address three main issues: climate-change mitigation, energy security and agricultural development. The idea of producing energy from a reproducible source is readily appealing. When that energy source is said to have a multiplicity of benefits, for example, being part of the solution to a global crisis like climate change, then you have a bestseller on your hands. This is how agrofuels have come in.6

However, it is pertinent at this point to say that we do not dispute the use of agrofuels for community use, as in the case of Malian communities where domestic energy needs are met from this source. In such communities they make use of non-edible crops like jatropha and these are grown in hedges around homes or gardens and are not propagated on a large scale. Agrofuels relying on large-scale adoption of intensive monoculture practices are almost certain to impact negatively on people and livelihoods.  Common wisdom instructs that when large-scale enterprises go wrong it is much easier to correct the small mistakes rather than the large ones.

An issue that we must repeatedly state is the wrong-headedness of seeing the market as the only route to progress and development. The current economic spirals have eliminated any need for further debate on this. It is also instructive to see that the global commodity market is not concerned with the overall good of humanity but rather with profit maximisation. If the cheapest commodities are agrofuels crops - like oil palm, cassava, maize, groundnuts, etc. - cultivated on cheap African lands, what this means is that we are not only stoking the fires of humanitarian disaster, but also building an environmental disaster.7

In this article we make a distinction between large-scale cultivation of agrofuels monocultures and small-scale, locally produced and owned agrofuels activities. The former is usually accompanied by environmental externalities associated with intensive use of water, chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. These often result in polluting, depleting and degrading available water resources. This is the type of production model driven by corporate giants and industrial societies. On the other hand, smaller-scale efforts are needs-driven and their impacts are on the positive curve as the entire process is intimately connected to the people. For example, where jatropha is used to produce oils for machines or lamps, the residues are used in producing soaps and other products that all add up to economic empowerment of local women and their families.

Land grabs

The fact that agrofuels have triggered a new scramble for Africa is no longer news. Millions of hectares are being grabbed with little concern for the poor who are bound to face displacement and for the impact that this will have on family farms and other small-scale farms and food production on the continent. 

One case in point is an unfolding transaction in Madagascar. There, we are told, a South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics plans to buy a 99-year lease on over a million hectares for the production of 5m tonnes of corn a year by 2023, and to use another 120,000 hectares for the production of palm oil.8  This deal, estimated to cost the company about $6bn over 25 years, is acclaimed as the biggest of its kind in the world.9 The land to be parcelled off to Daewoo Logistics covers arable land about half the size of Belgium. For a mostly arid country with three food crisis situations in five years, this is a huge challenge indeed.

The firm claims that thousands of jobs will be created and that it will use a mainly South African workforce, but the produce will be mainly earmarked for South Korea.10 In other words, that chunk of Africa would simply be a South Korean farm for South Korea. Although the crops are said to be for food, the lesson for land and land rights is the same for agrofuels.

The Guardian article11 from which the Madagascar story was quoted presents us with additional reasons to worry. We are told that in Sudan there are efforts by the state to attract investors for almost 900,000 hectares of its land, while the Ethiopian Prime Minister is reported to have been courting would-be Saudi investors.  Commentators believe that these negotiations are lopsided and may weigh against Africa. A number of factors impact the quality and amount of arable lands available in many African countries. In the case of Ethiopia, the pressure on natural resources has led to the burning of animal dung for fuel instead of utilising it as a resource for soil quality improvement. Over 600,000 tonnes are said to be lost in crop production annually due to these pressures on the land. This loss amounts to double the amount of yearly food aid requests from the country.12 The additional pressures that use of land for agrofuels would bring to bear on food deficits in countries in similar conditions are easy to imagine. 

A further downside is that small farmers without official land title are already on the losing end. Add to this the fact that details of these land deals are hard to come by. With a lack of transparency there is no assurance of safeguards for the poor or even the overall long-term interest of the continent.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) advocates an urgent review of agrofuels policies and subsidies in order to preserve the goal of world food security, protect poor farmers, promote broad-based rural development and ensure environmental sustainability.13 Its head, Jacques Diouf, has clearly warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a form of 'neo-colonialism', with poor states producing food for the rich (and their machines) at the expense of their own hungry people.14

Land, agriculture and nations at risk

One of the key concerns about agrofuels is the massive land uptake needed. Attempts are made to present the use of tropical countries as agrofuels farmlands as something being done in the best interests of the host. Some of these efforts take the form of sustainability criteria and other manner of certifications. They can be said to be little more than attempts to keep clear consciences, in the same vein as monoculture tree plantations are set up in the South to serve as carbon sinks while the North continues polluting. And collects carbon credits to boot.

Analysts have shown that there is simply not enough agricultural land on earth to grow agrofuels crops to meet the huge energy needs driven by our current ways of living. Jumping into the agrofuels boat thus has special implications for Africa. These crops, apart from gobbling up the land in order to feed machines, also require a lot of water and falling water tables can trigger off famines.15 The importance of food security was underlined by no less than then US President George Bush in 2001:

'Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed its people? It would be a nation that would be subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk. And so when we're talking about American agriculture, we're really talking about a national security issue.'16

Do agrofuels have a place in the energy mix in Africa?

The biggest argument for the adoption of agrofuels in Africa comes from the context of energy deficiencies. This is what gave rise to the so-called green OPEC. With crude oil prices shooting through the roof, petroleum-importing poor countries found themselves in serious economic stress as energy bills gobbled up their national budgets. In that situation the argument that agrofuels would provide an alternative to fossil fuels sounded attractive.

Some of these countries believed that they could meet their energy needs through agrofuels and still have more than enough to export. This is the thinking behind the plan to cartelise agrofuels production in Africa. This way of thinking can easily be seen to be a pipedream. Nevertheless, it set the rush for African lands in motion. The trend caught on even in petroleum-exporting countries like Nigeria.

Given the growing need for energy sources in Africa, there is the need to seek viable and sustainable alternatives. We posit that these alternatives should be oriented towards local production and consumption rather than international markets.

Recent research by Friends of the Earth (FoE) African groups17 has shown that some countries in Africa have embarked on the production of agrofuels for an assortment of reasons. We will now review some of these reasons. 

Togo has initiated a jatropha production programme with which she hopes to meet the energy needs of the people. Respondents in the FoE research listed some of the benefits of agrofuels as follows:

* Reduced dependence on imported energy resources.

* Higher value for local raw materials.

* Revitalisation of agricultural sector due to the transformations in natural resources with added value and creation of wealth.

* Reduction in rural-urban exodus due to the fact that there will be meaningful rural employment.

* Increase in vegetation for countries/territories that hold firmly to good management principles, fighting against environmental menaces.

* Reduction of importation of petrol whose fluctuating price per barrel affects development plans seriously in countries in the South.

* Promotion of technology.

* Sustainable promotion and development of agrofuels in consonance with national energy security needs.

* Improved and favourable environment for investment.

* To inspire research in the development of agrofuels to meet the basic needs of Africa.

The research also revealed that the government is also seeking other alternatives because of the possible risk associated with agrofuels production.

Benin decided to go into agrofuels production to solve the problems associated with climate change and very high prices for petroleum products. Burkina Faso is currently at experimental stages of production of agrofuels from cottonseeds and jatropha. Eighty per cent of the population of Burkina Faso work in the agricultural sector, contributing about 32% to her income. The country reportedly pays the highest for petroleum products and is said to pay the highest electricity charges in the whole world.

For some years now jatropha has been used in Mali as a source of fuel oil for cooking and lighting. The National Solar Energy and Energy Revamping Centre (CNESOLER) initiated in 1990 catalysed the development of agrofuels in Mali. There have been some positive outcomes for the rural communities in terms of job creation and social life as well as energy efficiency.

Senegal's effort to escape the clutches of a disconcerting energy crisis, including electricity cuts and fuel price hikes, bore fruit in the 1980s when the country decided to go into agrofuels production. The government developed initiatives to produce ethanol from jatropha seeds, and also acquired vehicles that used jatropha oil. The aim was to modernise the energy sector, get respite from high-cost petroleum products and also attain energy independence, produce bioelectricity from jatropha oil and reduce poverty and the disparity between rural and urban dwellers.

Assault on the staples

The point to note in the case of Togo, Senegal and Mali is that food crops are not targeted in these countries, and the production of agrofuels is aimed at local consumption and not for export.  It is a different ball game in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and other countries, where staple food crops such as cassava, corn, groundnuts, sorghum, sweet potatoes, etc., are being used or are being proposed to be used to produce bio-ethanol.

Nigeria provides a good example of a country where staples are under assault for the sake of agrofuels production. Research and monitoring carried out by FoE African groups show that cassava and other staples across the continent are under severe attack by agrofuels giants and their biotech partners. In a newspaper interview, the Vice President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a Nigerian, declared that Nigeria should 'turn cassava into a money-making business' by processing the staple into 'ethanol, livestock feed, pellets and so on'.18

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and its foreign partners have acquired large chunks of land, in almost all the 36 states of the country, for the production of ethanol. The crops of choice include staples like cassava, sorghum and sugarcane. Some of the agrofuels plantations and production plants are already sited in communities with water shortages, leaving the community with an acute water scarcity. Researchers from Friends of the Earth Nigeria on a field visit found that the local people neither had an idea of the actual land uptake nor were they consulted by the state government before community lands were appropriated.

NNPC and its partners are optimistic that the project would impact positively on its host communities, when it becomes fully operational. In one community in northern Nigeria, NNPC said, it would produce 75 million litres of ethanol and 116 tonnes of refined sugar per annum from sugarcane. The project is also expected to generate job opportunities for the people. The people are being promised that the agrofuels companies will provide social amenities for the communities, things that government should routinely provide.


The Environment Ministry had also observed that the large quantities of sugarcane needed for the project require irrigation farming and may lead to bilharzias disease. There is also the fear that the community will lose its vegetation as a result of operation of the plant apart from other effects on the environment, food and people, caused as a result of the massive use of chemicals and pesticides.19

Chinese companies operating in Sierra Leone have acquired large parcels of land in the country to produce ethanol using sweet potatoes, corn, cassava and fig-nut. Villagers interviewed complained that there was very little land available for them to farm and they could thus barely sustain their families. They also complained that they were being coerced into planting corn not for their local consumption but to sell to the Chinese merchants. All the local people hold on to are promises that they would buy their produce at a good price.20

It is obvious that where local farmers are made to use their lands to cultivate crops for export, there is a serious threat to food sovereignty. Considering the fact that Sierra Leone is a country just recovering from war and still struggling to produce food to satisfy the needs of her people, this thinly veiled land grab will aggravate the food crisis in the country.

In Ghana, the Norwegian firm Biofuel Africa secured 38,000 hectares for 'the largest jatropha plantation in the world' and began clear-cutting the land in preparation for cultivation. The major plank on which jatropha is being pushed across the continent is that it does well on marginal lands. In this case the so-called marginal land is a forest. The Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency eventually halted the clear-cutting after 2,600 hectares of forest had been destroyed. The story is one of glittering promises of jobs, rapid deforestation, and use of neo-colonial methods. The chief who signed the so-called contract documents could neither read nor write.21  Agrofuels companies take land from rural communities with much ease.22

Field reports from Cameroon reveal that some of the projects are concentrated in the heart of the forest of the Congo Basin. Large tracts have been deforested. Complaints abound from the people that wildlife and the source of livelihood of the locals are threatened. European companies are in the top league of those who have grabbed over 600,000 hectares of land for the cultivation of agrofuels crops.23

Aggressive agrofuels push

British firm Sun Biofuels is at work in Ethiopia, where the government has reportedly set aside 24 million hectares24 for the production of fuel crops, and Tanzania. Other companies are known to try to secure century-long farming rights for nothing but a promise to invest in local roads and schools. 

An Ethiopian minister claims that such land is otherwise unusable, and officials in Tanzania claim that it's just marginal land.  'The whole thing is nothing but positive,' says the administrator of Tanzania's Kisarawe district, who is responsible for the Sun Biofuels project in the district. 'We have convinced the people.'25 While government officials gush over agrofuels and claim that the lands being sought by agrofuels promoters are marginal lands, others perceive that 'the land grabs and forced relocations are stirring ugly memories of colonialist exploitation.'26

In Mozambique too Sun Biofuels has acquired a large parcel of land from the people. Foreign investors have their eye on 11 million hectares - more than one-seventh of the country's total area - for growing energy plants.27 In April 2006, Sun Biofuels claimed that it had received formal approval for cultivation from 10 of 11 villages whose lands had been allocated to it in Tanzania.  At the time they made this claim most of the villages were not even aware of any move to give their lands to Sun Biofuels. According to reports, one village head sent a letter to the district administration complaining that Sun Biofuels had cleared and marked off land without even contacting the village elders.28

Land rights issues in Tanzania also extend to actions in the mining sector.  For example, the mining policy states that the Land Act (1999) and the Village Land Act (1999) provide a legal basis on ownership and compensation on land matters. These laws are not evenly applied and multinational mining companies take advantage of the locals who are not aware of compensation processes, their rights and the fact that the new landowners have a duty to compensate them where the lands are transferred legally. It is said that 'sometimes the companies use administrative and other corrupt measures to avoid making payments'.29

In Swaziland the aggressive agrofuels push has come from the British multinational D1 Oils. The company engaged about 2,000 outgrowers to plant jatropha on over 3,000 hectares in various parts of the country in addition to over 1,000 hectares at D1 Oils-operated farms. Following mounting pressure from civil society groups, D1 Oils Swaziland has been ordered to suspend any new planting of jatropha by the Swaziland Environment Authority (SEA), who have also ordered D1 Oils to conduct a strategic environmental assessment.30

Agrofuels fuel adverse impacts

Reports from the field can give an indication of impacts on the ground:

* The population is usually uninformed

* Cultivation of energy plants usually goes hand-in-hand with forced resettlement

* Food imports grow even further in food-importing nations

* Ethanol production also affects food prices: Any spike in food prices must worry Africa, as the impacts are grave. Two years ago, the International Food Policy Research Institute published sobering estimates of the potential global impact of rising demand for agrofuels. They predicted that given continued high oil prices, the rapid increase in global agrofuels production would push global corn prices up by 20% by 2010 and 41% by 2020. The prices of oilseeds, including soybeans, rapeseeds, and sunflower seeds, are also projected to jump by 26% by 2010 and 76% by 2020 while wheat prices were expected to rise by 11% by 2010 and 30% by 2020. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, where cassava is a staple, its price is expected to increase by 33% by 2010 and a startling 135% by 2020. The number of people suffering from undernourishment globally could increase by 16 million for each percentage point increase in the real price of staple food crops. This could mean that 1.2 billion people would be suffering from hunger by 2025.31

* Land grabbing and rights abuses and displacement from traditional lands

* Deforestation and biodiversity losses

* Agrofuels are not renewable: they depend on finite resources such as land and water

* Contamination with genetically modified (GM) crops. There is real fear that this may happen with the cassava plantations being pursued in Nigeria with the backing of GM crop promoters, IITA, and with the direct investment of Shell Petroleum Development Company

* Heavy soil quality degradation by jatropha after years of cultivation (to be researched)

* Hardly are inclusive environmental/socio-economic impact analyses carried out

* Farmers are tied to monopolies:  Ghanaian farmers have expressed fears over being tied to a single industry by producing oils that only it needs. This could have catastrophic impacts if that industry happened to fail. The farmers fear that agrofuels refineries could manipulate them by dictating the price of the produce and where refineries do not promptly pay for their produce, their livelihoods would be severely compromised.32

* Agrofuels are not carbon-neutral: Some have argued that one of the advantages of agrofuels over fossil fuels is that they do not emit much greenhouse gases. Agrofuels are sometimes said to be 'carbon-neutral' as they are derived from crops that take up atmospheric carbon during their growth and release it when they are burnt. This, however, ignores emissions released during production, as a result of land-use change, fertiliser application and processing.33


The solution to Africa's energy needs is not agrofuels. Africa does not have enough landmass to meet the insatiable needs of the machines of the North. But agrofuels do have a place in Africa - if they are used to meet small-scale community energy needs. This is the path of ecologically sound agrofuels and a clear path for the advancement of peoples' energy sovereignty.                                     

Nnimmo Bassey is the current Chair of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI). He is also the executive director and founding member of Environmental Rights Action, the foremost environmental human rights advocacy group in Nigeria. He campaigns on biosafety and food/hunger issues as well as on community impacts of extractive industries. He is also a poet who uses poetry as a cultural tool for change.

The above was written for the Conference on Ecological Agriculture: Mitigating Climate Change, Providing Food Security and Self-Reliance for Rural Livelihoods in Africa, which was held in Addis Ababa on 26-28 November 2008.


1          Nnimmo Bassey, 'Africa: Agrofuels, Energy and Trade Linkages,' a paper presented at the Conference on             Agrofuels by Friends of the Earth Africa, held in Abuja, Nigeria, 13 August 2008

2          Michael Dynes, 'Growing Up', Africa Investor, Issue 31, March 2008.

3          Abdoulaye Wade, 'Africa Over A Barrel', Washington Post, Saturday, October 28, 2006; page A15. See   

4          Matt Crenson, 'Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions' at

5          William Easterly, The White Man's Burden - Why the west's efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and             so little good, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006. pp58-59

6          Nnimmo Bassey, op cit

7          George Monbiot, Heat - How to Stop the Planet Burning, Penguin Books, London, 2007, p159

8          Julian Borger, 'Rich countries launch great land grab to safeguard food supply', The Guardian, London,             Saturday November 22 2008

9          Billy Head, The Guardian, London, Saturday November 22 2008

10        Julian Borger, op cit

11        Julian Borger, ibid

12        Hailu Araya and Sue Edwards, The Tigray Experience, A Success Story in Sustainable Agriculture, TWN,             Penang, 2006, pp 5-6

13        FAO, Reviewing biofuel policies and subsidies


14        Julian Borger, op cit

15        See George Monbiot's Heat, earlier cited, pp 100-169 for more discussions on renewable energy sources as             well as land needs

16        Quoted by Eduardo Galeano in 'The Eighth Commandment - Lies', New Internationalist, Issue NI 414, August             2008

17        FoE African groups recently conducted a research on the spread of agrofuels in the region.  The report is yet             to be published.

18        '"I Feel Sad We Are Unable To Feed Ourselves" Says Dr. Akinwumi, Vice President, AGRA', The Guardian,             Lagos, Sunday, August 10, 2008 

19        ERA/ FoEN report. Yet to be published.

20        Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone field report, 2008, unpublished

21        Horand Knaup, 'Africa Becoming a Biofuel Battleground', BusinessWeek, 8 September, 2008,    

22        RAINS/ABN, 'Biofuel land grabbing in Northern Ghana', cited by GAIA Foundation in The Myth of Marginal             Lands

23        Centre for Environment and Development/Friends of the Earth Cameroon (CED/FoE C), field report on the             spread of agrofuels in the country. Yet to be published.

24        Horand Knaup, op cit

25        Horand Knaup, ibid

26        Horand Knaup, ibid

27        Ibid

28        Ibid

29        Evans Rubara, 'Tanzania: Mining and Colonial Practices', Pambazuka News 407, 20 November 2008 at   > and at  AfricaFiles at

30        'Swaziland: D1 Oils suspends Jatropha growing'


31        M. Rosengrant et al, 'Bioenergy and Agriculture: Promises and Challenges', International Food Policy             Research Institute, December 2006.

32        Nnimmo Bassey, 'A Tsunami That Was Never Silent: Africa, the Food Crisis and Food Aid'   

33        M. Hagmann, 'EMPA-study scrutinizes the ecological balance of various biofuels'. EMPA Press release, 22             May, 2007*/60542/-/l=2.