Kenyan large scale energy crops: sustainable bioenergy solutions?

14.9.2012 at 14:29

Javier Arevalo


Traditional uses of woody biomass such as firewood and charcoal continue to be the dominating sources of energy in Kenya at household level, despite attempts made in recent decades to change these traditional uses into more sustainable ones. The attempts include, among others, the prohibition of producing and distributing charcoal given the damages caused in forests by illegal charcoal burners, the introduction of more efficient stoves, and the education campaigns aiming at tackling the health problems caused by their use in non-ventilated rooms. Such efforts, however, have not yet produced clear results, and accurate accounts on the amount of firewood and charcoal used cannot be made. Outside this household use, and within the industrial and transportation sectors, the country has a high dependency on imported oil, due to the absence of domestic fossil fuels or significant hydropower capacity.

In the context of a growing need for energy brought by the combination of a rapidly increasing population and a sustained economic growth, Kenya’s policy makers have been exploring alternative forms of energy, and have recently paid attention to the potential for various domestic sources such as thermal, wind, solar and biomass energy. With regard to bioenergy, new policies have been recently approved to promote the use of both woody biomass and especially biofuels. With respect to the latter, species such as jatropha, croton and castor have been the main focus for the production of biodiesel, while sugar cane is thought to be the most viable crop for ethanol. Nonetheless, contradictory views and studies on the viability of large-scale plantations for the production of biofuels continue to fuel the debate. The main contested issues for biodiesel production are: firstly, the technical feasibility in terms of the yields in oil of species such as jatropha, which may have been overestimated especially in semi-arid conditions; and secondly, the changes in the livelihood as well as the displacement of local communities to give room to the plantations. The criticism has been received even by community based organizations working with small-scale farmers, since many have encouraged the adoption of such crops in the believe that unrealistic yields and market price were awaiting.

Within the last years, many have been the foreign companies interested in establishing large-scale plantations for biofuels, not only in Kenya but in many African countries. Critics have linked this phenomenon, thought to be a driving force for landgrabbing and loss of forests due to indirect land use change, to the over-ambitious targets set by the Renewable Energy Directive of the European Union. Particularly within the Tana Delta region in North-East Kenya, investors from countries such as Canada, Italy and the UK have laid plans for bioenergy crops. These plans have been surrounded by controversy given their potentially negative impact over wildlife as well as over the customary land uses of local communities (comprising various ethnic groups engaged in different forms of livelihood such as farming, fishing or cattle raising). Not uncommonly, the seemingly underutilised land that is leased for such developments is in fact source of pastures for pastoralist communities during the dry season, as well as corridor for cattle and wildlife for accessing the river. While the delicate ecological as well as social balance seems to be at great risk, the bioenergy developments constitute also an opportunity for the development of the local economy (i.e. jobs, infrastructures, etc. in one of the poorest regions of the country) as well as for the production of a domestic and low-carbon source of energy. 

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Javier Arevalo

Javier Arevalo

 

blog on bioenergy

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