Biofuels and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa

CHINWEZE, Chizobaa,

a Chemtek Associates, Nigeria, e-mail:

Abstract — The global demand for biofuels, especially the European Union and United States bioenergy mandate has prompted industrial plantations and agribusiness in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); which jeopardize the immediate and long-term food security in the region. The international land acquisition for biofuel crops in SSA accounted for a share of about 60% both in terms of total number of deals and in covered area (Giovannetti and Ticci, 2012), yet the agricultural land in Africa covers less than 15% of the land area. It is worthy to note that land deals refer to transactions that entail transfer of rights to use, control or own land through sale, lease or concession (Anseeuw et al, 2012b).
From the foregoing it is evident that the area used for biofuels production is enlarging and competes unfavourably with food production for local consumption.
It should be noted that in Africa access to and/or rights over land are predominantly based on tradition, customs or culture and are not necessarily backed by domestic legislation. Often they lack legally enforceable status and/or the land is state owned, with rights to access for the indigenous people never properly defined (Graham A et al 2010). This thereerefore translates to a great majority in sub-Saharan Africa losing access to land and related resources they depend on to feed themselves and their families, as governments and some ’rich’ private investors are in large-scale agricultural investment for non-food community production; which inadventantly is affecting the standard of living of many households including food and housing. Again many farmers leaving their their farms, to work in plantations with the expectation of higher long-term returns. If left unchecked this could spell the end of small-scale farming and rural livelihood.
Thus investments for biofuel production in SSA are to a large extent, to the detriment of the local population, as the financial powerful nations gets the most fertile land and free access to water, while the natives landlords are either displaced, dispossessed or made land-labourers. 70% of the SSA population rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. A shift from subsistence agriculture to biofuels production is very likely to adversely affect food security and exacerbate poverty and hunger in the region.
Already about 30% of the SSA population are undernourished and as the population of the region grows to approximately 1.5-2 billion by 2050, food production levels will need to quadruple to avert starvation and a major food crisis. This challenge is further heightened when biofuel production is added to the menu.
This paper contributes to the growing knowledge on foreign land investment in SSA for biofuel production and its consequences on livelihoods and food security.

Keywords — Biofuels, food security, disaster risk management, sub-Saharan Africa, conflicts, poverty

1 Introduction

Subsistence agriculture is the main form of food production in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over 70% of labour force in the region. The economies of most countries in the sub-region, such as Nigeria and Ghana, are heavily dependent on agricultural production, which makes up approximately 35% of their gross national product and 40% of foreign exchange earnings. It then follows that the increasing demand for biofuels in the region is a threat to livelihoods and food production, with commensurate implications for human security and welfare. The 2007 oil price spike; coupled with the drive for a green economy and sustainable development, have generated worldwide interest in biofuels. The global demand for biofuels, primarily ethanol and biodiesel, is expected to grow rapidly until at least 2020 in the United States and European Union due to consumption mandates and volatile petroleum prices. The European Union has mandated that 10 per cent of transport fuels be drawn from renewable sources by 2020: this requires a tripling of the approximately 15 billion litres of biofuel consumed in 2009. Similarly, the United States has targets to more than triple the 42 billion litres of biofuel that country consumed in 2009 by 2022 (Mitchell, 2011).

2 The case study: effects of large-scale land acquisition for biofuels production on rural livelihoods

In Africa, agricultural land covers less than 15% of the land area, arid and semi-arid agro-ecological zone encompass 43% of the land area; yet the demand for arable land for biofuel production is on the increase, with the rural people being pushed off their farmlands.. The rural communities in the region depend on subsistence agriculture for sustenance; and agriculture in this region is closely tied to human welfare and livelihoods.

The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that in Madagascar, negotiations with Daewoo Logistic Corporation to lease 1.3 million hectares (which represent half of the country’s farming land) for maize and palm oil production played a role in the political conflict that led to overthrow of the government in 2009 (Von Braun and Meinzen-Dick 2009). The State of the World 2011 report from the Worldwatch Institute evidences large land grabs by foreign countries and corporate entities in sub-Saharan Africa (Worldwatch Institute, 2011). The report further warns that these international land acquisitions are marginalizing the rights of indigenous farming communities and may trigger “xenophobia, riots, coups and more hunger”.

The use of staple food for biofuel production will most likely highten food price increases, and the effects will harm poor households most. World Bank survey data (World Bank) from Tanzania indicates that the poorest quintile spends five times as much on maize as a percentage of total expenditure compared to the richest quintile. Since the cost of food accounts for 70-80% of household expenditure, increases in the price of staples will force many families to opt for cheaper and less nutritional options: this clearly presents health challenges and increases the risk of malnutrition. Already the FAO (FAO, 2010) report has it that about 30% of the world undernourished people live in the sub-Saharan African region.

2.1 Food insecurity and disaster risk reduction

The convergence of agro-food-fuel complexes represents a major threat to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Food security exists when all people at all times have physical or economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preference for an active and healthy life (FAO 1996). Therefore availability, access and affordability are all elements of food security. However the demographic projection indicates that approximately 1.5-2 billion will be living in the SSA region by 2050. Therefore the food production levels will need to quadruple to avert a major food crisis and probably conflicts. The addition of biofuel production to the menu is an issue of major concern.

Foregin investment in agriculture for biofuel production in the SSA region where land rents are cheaper and regulatory system weaker are obviously not to the best interest of the locals. The real behind those large-scale investment on farmland according to Olivier De Schutter the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food is that giving land away to investors having better access to capital to ‘develop’ implies huge opportunity costs, as it will result in a type of farming that will have much less powerful poverty-reducing impact, than if access to land and water were improved for local farming communities (De Schutter, 2011); which is real agricultural development. Giving land away to foreigners encourages a shift towards a more export-led type of agriculture; this will increase stresses in local food availability and access to food.

Already there are pockets of conflicts and insecurity in the region, and this could be heightened by hunger and starvation. It is therefore imperative, that governments in the sub-region be assisted with real agricultural development that addresses food availability, access and affordability, in order to avert the looming disaster associated with food insecurity.

Table 1: Examples of large land deals
Country Land size Remark
Madagascar 1.3 million hectares of land (which represents half of the country’s farming land) for maize and palm oil production. This deal played a role in the political conflict that lead to the overthrow of the government in 2009.
Sudan 30000000 hectares in 2009. These land deals threatens local livelihoods as it competes unfavourably with local food production for local consumption.
Zambia 2015000 hectares in 2009. The fertile productive land of the local farmers is acquired while the farmers are pushed further into low yielding lands, exacerbating hunger and poverty.
Tanzania 90000 hectares in 2008. Sekab of Sweden that acquired the land noted that export volume of ethanol from the project according to their projections is expected to be enough to replace all petrol and diesel used by cars in Sweden and Norway.

Source: Field Work

3 Conclusions

The shift to renewable energy in the context of sustainable development that necessitated the need for biofuels jeopardizes the immediate and long-term food security of the sub-Saharan African region. The rising food prices, large-scale land grabs, conversion of local labour to work in biofuel farms and the squabble over tenure rights are major threats that points at looming disaster risks and conflicts associated with biofuel prodcution in the region.

The reliance on biofuels for energy production on the primes of going green, ignores the associated risks as well as the food insecurity dimension.


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Chinweze, C. (2015): Biofuels and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In: Planet@Risk, 3(1): 137-139, Davos: Global Risk Forum GRF Davos.