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Biofuels and Food Security: Green Economy in Sub-Saharan Africa

22 Nov 2011

This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

The inclusion of biofuels as part of the green economy agenda jeopardizes the immediate and long-term food security of many regions in the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, rising food prices, land grabs, and precarious and informal labour conditions are key social threats linked to the emphasis on biofuel production. UNEP defines a green economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. Yet the inclusion of biofuels as part of this green economy agenda ignores ecological realities as well as the social dimensions of food insecurity.

Chizoba Chinweze is Director of Chemtek Associates, an Environmental Research and Consulting Firm in Nigeria. Gwen Abiola-Oloke is a Chartered Economist and Chief Executive Officer of Continental Bank-Benin in Benin. Chike Jideani is Managing Director of Starwood Development, a Media firm in Nigeria. Chinney Kennedy-Echetebu is Executive Director of El-Roi Global Services, a Maritime and Energy Services Organization in Nigeria.

Food and fuel

Agriculture is closely tied to human welfare and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest employment sector, occupying over 70% of the labour force. A large proportion of the population lives in rural areas, relying on subsistence agriculture, and smallholder farmers are the mainstay for food production. The economies of some countries, such as Nigeria and Ghana, are heavily dependent on agricultural production, which accounts for approximately 35% of their gross national product and 40% of foreign exchange earnings. The increasing demand for biofuels is a threat to food production, with commensurate implications for human welfare. It is critically connected to sustainable development with respect to trade, natural resources, employment and biodiversity.

The 2007 oil price spike and the accompanying acceptance of the reality of peak oil, coupled with the drive for a green economy, 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 2022.1

The scramble for land in sub-Saharan Africa: Effects on the rural poor

In Africa, agricultural land covers less than 15% of the land area, yet demand is increasing for arable terrain. A number of factors explain this. The assumption that biofuels are a viable long-term solution to current energy and ecological challenges, combined with a decline in land allocated to agriculture in developed countries, have pushed many institutions and corporations from various sectors (automobiles, oil, biotechnology, agribusiness, banks and so on) to scramble for large tracts of land in developing countries. 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 2009.2 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.3

For instance the Sweden-based companies Biomassive and Sekab are already growing crops in Mozambique and Tanzania for biofuel production. Sekab has already planted 20,000 hectares in Tanzania’s coastal region and has plans to expand this to 400,000 hectares. The volume of ethanol from this project is expected to be enough to replace all petrol and diesel used by cars in Sweden and Norway. From 2008 to 2009, the Republic of Korea acquired 690,000 hectares of land in Sudan, and China was reported to have signed a land deal with Zimbabwe in March 2008 for over 100,000 hectares. European corporations, universities from the United States and pension funds are also named among those purchasing huge tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa. It should be noted that there are likely to be many more large land deals than is publicly reported, since evidence is scare and there is lack of transparency in many such transactions.

The Worldwatch report further warns that these international land grabs are marginalizing the rights of indigenous farming communities and may trigger “xenophobia, riots, coups and more hunger”. The evidence compiled in the report reveals that Western companies involved in these deals are using the land to grow biofuel crops rather than food crops. It is worth noting that the major crops used for ethanol production – maize, soya, cassava and sugar cane – are also the staple food products in sub-Saharan Africa. The use of staple food for biofuel production will prompt food price increases, and the effects will harm poor households most. World Bank survey data4 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.

The number of hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased over the last decade. In Burundi, Comoros, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo hunger affects half of the population. In Kenya, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2009, 4.1 million urban poor were “highly food-insecure” while 7.6 million others were unable to meet their daily food needs.5 In a region already under pressure from population growth, famine, drought and conflict, increases in biofuel production and concomitant land grabs can only contribute to weakening food security and keeping achievement of the Millennium Development Goals far beyond reach.

The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that some 15-20 million hectares of farmland in the region were subject to deals involving foreign investors between 2006 and 2009. This means that the rural poor in affected areas were displaced, dispossessed or incorporated into emerging agribusiness, largely to their detriment. The changing dynamics of land use has implications for property relations and can lead to violence and conflict in struggles for control. Strong policies are required to ensure that the long-term food security of the region is not compromised.

Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is deeply dependent upon atmospheric and hydrological cycles: alterations in these can threaten crops and reduce productivity further from what are already low levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has drawn attention to the severe effects that shifting rainfall patterns and extreme weather events will likely have on the sub-Saharan region.6 Drought, flooding, desertification, rising temperatures and sea levels, and invasive species are projected to reduce yields in some sub-Saharan countries by as much as 50% by 2020, and net crop revenues could fall by as much as 90% by 2100.

Given such a context, the shift in agricultural production away from food toward biofuels is highly likely to adversely affect food security and exacerbate poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa.

Food insecurity and the role of social policy

The convergence of impacts from climate change, population growth and agro-food-fuel complexes represents a major threat to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. The FAO’s 2010 report indicated that 240 million of the world’s undernourished people live in sub-Saharan Africa. 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. While food insecurity in this geopolitical zone is also dependent on regional conflicts, weak governance structures and a lack of strong local leadership, the agro-food-fuel complex will only exacerbate the situation. It is imperative therefore, that governments legislate against land grabs and implement policies to ensure land is used for food rather than biofuel production.


1 Mitchell, D. 2011. Biofuels in Africa: Opportunities, Prospects and Challenges. The World Bank, Washington, DC.

2 Von Braun, J. and Meinzen-Dick, R. 2009. "Land Grabbing" by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities. IFPRI Policy Brief 13. April. 4pp.

3 The Worldwatch Institute. 2011. State of the World Report. The Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC.

4 The World Bank, Tanazania Human Resources Development Survey. University of Dar es Salaam and the World Bank, Dar es Salaam.

5 FAO. 2010. Food Outlook: Global Market Analysis. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

6 IPCC (2007). Africa. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 433-467.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.