Monday, October 27, 2008

Biofuels boom and bust in Kenya

IPS: The Kenyan government has hailed bio-diesel as an innovation that combines green politics with poverty reduction. But recent drops in biofuel prices have caused concern about the sustainability of alternative fuel production. Rural farmers who have invested all their savings into growing oil seeds now fear they have opted for the wrong venture.

Over the last few years, the Kenyan government, NGOs and industry have pushed the production of bio-diesel -- which is environmentally sustainable because it emits fewer toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gasses than petroleum-based fuels -- and many small-scale farmers have placed their hopes into oil seeds [like jatropha] as a new avenue to earn money. Initially, biofuel projects seemed to be a success, with farmers more than doubling their usual income.

…However, the farmers’ luck ran out in April when biofuel prices suddenly plummeted from an average of $10 per kilo to less than $0.5 per kilo. Biofuel research companies, producers and NGOs supporting the production of environmentally friendly diesel had created an artificially high demand for the seeds, which resulted a high pricing structure that could not be maintained in an open market in the long-term.

In addition, the development of regulatory policy frameworks and local infrastructure needed to manufacture bio-diesel took longer than expected. As a result, Kenya has only few biofuel processing plants that struggle to keep up production with seed supply, and many rural farmers cannot afford the costs of transporting their seeds to the nearest factory.

…John Kioli, director of Nairobi-based NGO Green Africa Foundation, agrees that more money needs to be invested into small-scale biofuel production to turn around the downward trend in pricing. "For profitable and sustainable markets to be realised, local communities need their own processing plants that absorb locally available seeds. The guiding principle should be to use local raw material for local production and for local consumption," he explained….

Shown here, the top of a Jatropha plant as part of a hedge near Falan, Mali. The source of this image is (though I found it on Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License). The photo is by R. K. Henning Permission: The photos may be downloaded and published only with the citation of the name of the photographer and the website of its origin:

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