The Peculiarities of Africa’s Biomass Potential

Africa is one of the fastest growing continents in the world1 with the highest bioenergy potential (agricultural residues and bioenergy crops)2. About 47 % of the sub-Saharan African population however, still live on less than $1.25 a day and about 43 %  of Africans  have no access to electricity and clean cooking options. The role of bioenergy in energy security is especially important in sub-Saharan Africa where a majority of the population depends on agriculture and its products for survival.

With an estimated total cereal production of about 140 Mt, and assuming a cereal to residue ratio of 1:0, contributions to Africa’s biomass resource potential is about 140 Mt of stalks and husks3. Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa have been identified as top cereal producing countries in Africa. Apart from agricultural residues, Africa has many biomass generating options for bioenergy production. These include Sugarcane (bioethanol yield capacity of 4000 l/ha), cassava (bioethanol yield capacity of 1750 l/ha), oil palm (biodiesel yield capacity of about 3000 l/ha) and Jatropha (biodiesel yield capacity of 2200 l/ha).4

Estimates of biomass resource across Africa also reveal 650 million hectares (Mha) of forest cover though unevenly distributed5. The northern region of Africa has the lowest percentage of forest cover amounting to about 8.6 % 5 of the total African forest cover. The western and central regions of Africa take up about 280 Mha5 (about 44 %) while the eastern and southern regions have about 28 % of the total forest cover5. It is however interesting to note that Northern Africa, though low in forest reserve, have higher fossil fuel reserves. Another major source of biomass resource in Africa is the industrial wood production process. About 0.94 ton of fuel wood is produced from every ton of total industrial round wood production process.8 Fuel wood production from areas with forest cover and areas without forest cover has been estimated to be 1.93 m3/ha/year.6 Process byproducts such as sawdust, lop and tops and off-cuts are also available from the production process and have also been estimated to be about 1000 Mt annually6.

However, small scale productions of energy from biomass have been reported to fluctuate depending on biomass price and availability. Similarly, large scale production units do not have adequate feedstock supply despite claims of large biomass cultivations and potentials. In addition to these, only subsistence/marginal farmers are available to meet the bioenergy markets created by the several biofuel/fossil fuel blending mandates/proposals put forward by several African countries. Nigeria and Kenya have an E10 petrol blend target in place; Malawi has an E10 petrol blending mandate; Mozambique has a 10% and 5% blending mandate for petrol and diesel respectively; Ghana proposed 10-20% biofuel consumption by 2030; Mali proposed 10-20% biodiesel (from Jattopha) consumption by 2018; and Uganda proposed a 20% petrol blend.

Land for biomass generation is not a challenge in Africa and biomass conversion technology options are within reach. Potential land area available for cultivation in Africa is estimated to be 700 million hectares7. First generation biofuel production technologies are also fully developed and are applicable to both small and large-scale production levels. Though the marketability of these technologies is dependent upon cost-effectiveness and policies, a few African countries have several biofuel promotion policies in place. Similarly, electricity production technologies from biomass is not uncommon as large scale biomass electricity generation have been reported in Mauritius and small scale generation reported in Mali, Burkina Fasso and Senegal amongst others. Gel fuel is also in use in South Africa and Jatropha oil stoves are being developed.

Large investments have been made into biomass resource estimation and potential biomass generation with little corresponding investments in actual energy production from the biomass resources. Since little or no remote benefits have been attributed to this resource, can Africa’s biomass resource potential then be regarded as ‘special’?


1-United Nations: The millennium development goals report 2012

2-International Energy Agency, World energy outlook, Paris, 2011

3- CGPL 2011. Combustion, gasification and propulsion laboratory.

4- Sielhorst et al. 2008. Biofuels in Africa: An assessment of risks and benefits for African wetlands.;

5- FAO. 2005. Global forest resources assessment.

6- Amous S. 1999. The role of wood energy in Africa, FAO

7-FAO, 2009. Harmonised world soil database

8- Dassapa S. 2011. Potential of biomass energy for electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa. Energy for Sustainable Development 15:203–213

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