Gerard J. Ostheimer, Ph.D., Global Lead for Sustainable Bioenergy, UN Sustainable Energy for All, discusses the food energy nexus with ESI Africa, and how bioenergy can help drive food sustainability and security in Africa through a better understanding and management of agricultural waste.
The Agriculture Sector in Africa underperforms: The productivity of smallholder farmers is often poor and a tremendous amount of food is lost to spoilage before it has a chance to make it to market. As a result, economic development in wide areas of Sub-Saharan Africa is not progressing as fast as it could be. Disappointingly, many areas with tremendous potential for a thriving agricultural sector are instead cursed by food insecurity and malnourishment (http://www.un.org/en/africa/osaa/pdf/pubs/2013africanagricultures.pdf).
Many factors slow rural development in Africa, including poor infrastructure, poor governance and a lack of investment, but a major factor is the lack of Energy Access in rural Africa.
The United States of America features the highest Agricultural Productivity in the world because of the extensive and pervasive use of energy intensive technologies such as machinery-based cropping systems, irrigation, refrigeration, drying and food processing (http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1104145/eib112.pdf).
The vast majority of U.S. farmers rely on fossil fuels, but increasing numbers of American farmers are turning away from externally sourced energy and towards their own on-farm resources.
Implementing development programmes
Leveraging programmes like the Rural Energy for America Program, American farmers are harvesting their own wind, solar and biomass energy; thereby reducing their costs and increasing their profitability.
Likewise, African farmers can leverage their own resources: the sun, the wind and the very biomass that they are growing to fuel more effective farming.
The World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation agree that the intelligent application of energy-based approaches could significantly boost the productivity and profitability of African agriculture.
Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) is committed to achieving universal energy access by 2030 and features extensive networks of project developers, financiers, entrepreneurs and international agencies striving to bring renewable energy to rural Africa.
Germany, Sweden and the U.S. created Powering Agriculture, to catalyse on-farm energy production. Already the Powering Agriculture initiative is driving the deployment of solar powered irrigation systems, biogas powered milk refrigeration systems and off-grid food processing driven by off-grid biomass fired power systems.
These deployments are boosting yields and limiting post-harvest losses.
Benefits of waste
We only consume a small fraction of the biomass in food crops. Whether cacao, cassava, coffee or corn, the majority of the plant or fruit biomass is inedible and frequently treated as a waste.
In fact, the sugary pulp left over from cacao and coffee production can damage watersheds and must be managed, but these sources of renewable carbon can be so much more.
The non-food biomass of diverse crops can be an on-farm power source, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical regions that feature high levels of solar radiation, abundant rain and consequent vigorous plant growth.
When deployed in parallel with sustainable biomass production pathways, then on-farm biopower can be the fuel that drives marked increases in agricultural productivity. And so we see the potential for a Virtuous Cycle, whereby biomass-based power systems drive increases in biomass production that fuel further increases in food production and profitability.
A Virtuous Cycle
If this cycle of biomass boosted agricultural productivity, and is so compelling, then what prevents it from starting?
In developed countries the dominance of fossil fuels slows the adoption of on-farm bioenergy production and use, but clever financing solutions are literally turning farmers into independent power producers.
In developing rural Africa, there is a lack of awareness of these on-farm biopower solutions, a lack of experienced project developers and of course the need for African specific financing solutions—Note that the challenge is not technological.
These on-farm biopower solutions are off-the-shelf and ready for deployment immediately. Unfortunately, the problem is also political.
In the minds of some policymakers bioenergy is synonymous with biofuels, which are widely – and incorrectly – seen as competing for food resources. As such, people hesitate to deploy biomass-based power solutions out of misunderstanding of the relationship between biomass utilisation and food production.
We, in the SE4All Sustainable Bioenergy Group, are committed to working with African entrepreneurs, farmers, Governments and NGOs to overcome the barriers to bioenergy for sustainable development.
Through a combination of education, policy improvement and deployment of sustainable biopower solutions, African countries can optimise the use of the biomass resources and contribute, vibrantly to global food production.
Dr Ostheimer serves as the Global Lead for the SE4ALL Sustainable Bioenergy High Impact Opportunity. Working with diverse partners he promotes the development and deployment of sustainable bioenergy solutions to help achieve SE4All’s goals of increasing energy access and doubling the use of renewable energy.