Biofuels growing in Tanzania, as Kenya lags behind

As world energy prices soar with fears of supply disruptions, the production and use of biofuels is coming into focus. However, Kenya’s political problems have pushed the energy debate to the bottom of national priorities as neighbouring Tanzania becomes a leading producer of biofuels.

According to Wikipedia, biofuel can be broadly defined as solid, liquid, or gas fuel consisting of, or derived from recently dead biological material, most commonly plants. This distinguishes it from fossil fuel, which is derived from long dead biological material.

Jatropha tree. Picture by

Jatropha tree. Picture by

The global energy supply is predominantly based on fossil fuels. This causes great environmental, political and social problems. Biofuels are one option, since they do not contribute to the greenhouse effect. The biomass which is necessary for the production of biofuels can be derived from several sources, one of which is oilproducing crops such as the Jatropha tree.

Petrol prices in Kenya have reached a record high of Kshs110 a litre (US$1.64). Automotive diesel, which is the driving force of Kenya’s fledgling industry, is now retailing at Kshs100 ($1.5).

A year ago, the price of diesel was just about Kshs80. Meanwhile, rising oil prices have forced the Kenya Power & Lighting Company to increase electricity tariffs by up to 50% between June and August this year.

Rising energy prices have had an inflationary effect on consumer prices for food, clothing and housing. By mid this year, Kenya’s inflation rate was close to 30% – the highest in 15 years. For a population still recovering from ethnic and political clashes early this year, the prospects of economic slowdown due to inflation are likely to make life much harder. Combined with the effects of high youth unemployment, social observers fear that the violence that killed close to a thousand Kenyans could be a precursor of worse things to come.

In spite of this gloomy scenario, Kenya has been slow in adopting the use of alternative energy sources that could be cheaper for its people. There is little use of solar energy. Biogas production is almost non existent, while the use of biofuels has been unimpressive at best. There is hardly any governmental effort to promote the production of biofuel in Kenya, as politicians haggle over the next General Election scheduled for 2012.

As Kenya dithers on alternative energy, neighbouring Tanzania is producing so much biofuel that the government there has been urged to, “go slow.”

A total of 38 companies are engaged in biofuel production in Tanzania, with eight of them being investors who have been certified by the Tanzania Investment Centre. The rest are locally owned institutions. Areas being used to farm biofuels include; Coast, Ruvuma, Tabora, Kilimanjaro, Tanga, Morogoro, Kagera and Shinyanga.

Some of the crops that are being harnessed for biofuel production in Tanzania include coconuts, Jatropha, sugarcane, wheat, cassava and sunflower. Most of the activities have been directed towards the use of Jatropha curcas L., an indigenous plant whose seeds can be pressed to obtain oil. The water and nutrient requirements of the plant are modest, while its oil yield is relatively high.

Existing international investors in biofuels production in Tanzania attest to the potential of the sector. A Dutch investor has begun a 10,000 hectare jatropha outgrower program in the country. A subsidiary of a global cement producer is already using biomass to generate power. Three international sugar companies have invested in plantations and are producing ethanol and power as by-products. Several groups (a US-UK group, a Malaysian group and a US-based venture fund) are currently exploring more than 100,000 hectares for oil palm production.

The Government of Tanzania and international donors have identified biofuel as a priority growth sector and are providing extensive support for investments.

Many applications for Jatropha exist. The oil can be used in diesel engines, in oil lamps, cooking stoves, and as a basis for soap-making. The seedcake has several uses, mainly for biogas production and as fertilizer. The Jatropha tree can reduce soil erosion in arid and semi-arid lands.

Biofuel production in Tanzania is growing so fast that there are fears of diminished food production as farmers join the lucrative energy sector. An Oxfam report on biofuel production and its effects in Tanzania states that food supply to the nation could be in jeopardy with the environment endangered if the government continues to support haphazard production of biofuel. However, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda said the government would not stop the ongoing production but projects that are yet to start will be deferred as it prepares a national policy on biofuels.

According to Oxfam, diverting land to biofuel production was bound to stall the government’s vision to alleviate poverty. The fears have been described as exagarrated since Jatropha is not edible and therefore its production will not affect food production capacity.

A.T. Kearney
German Technical Cooperation (GTZ)
Janske van Eijck

One Response

  1. […] is renewed interest in alternative energy but it will be a long time before it is commercialized. Biofuels are almost non-existent. Coal mining in Mwingi District has been frustrated by the local political elite. Solar power is […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: