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Unisa online - Bio-energy in Africa: opportunities and threats

Prof Aklilu Amsalu (Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Prof Kitty Dumont (CGS, Department of Interdisciplinary Research)
Prof Aklilu Amsalu (Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Prof Kitty Dumont (CGS, Department of Interdisciplinary Research)

After decades of unending wars in Africa, there was no time for development. Now, Africa begins to rebuild herself and one of the starting points is the development of bio-energy. The College of Graduate Studies (CGS) hosted a public lecture on 1 August 2012 entitled “The quest for bio-energy development in Africa: opportunities and challenges”

In his paper, Prof Aklilu Amsalu, from the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), said that the development of modern bio-energy systems has brought opportunities as well as challenges for developing countries of the world. He added that many African countries have suitable conditions for bio-energy development because they have “abundant labour and sufficient, available, arable land and water resources.”

He said that there is a need for effective mechanisms to be put into place to ensure sustainability in order to avoid potential negative environmental and social-economic impacts. The investment in bio-fuels in Africa was on the rise during the early arrival of European companies who were “motivated by ambitious targets set by the European Union for substituting fossil fuels for transport.” Also, the bio-fuels are considered as a green solution to reliance on imported fossil fuel and a benefit to farmers seeking higher prices. This resulted in many African governments, including Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana, attracting investment in bio-fuels and encouraging the inclusion of local people in the production and processing.

He highlighted that the main controversy surrounding large scale land development is the availability of land and mentioned that, while there is a perception that land is abundant in certain countries, “these claims need to be treated with caution, because, in many cases, land is already being used or claimed.” He added that existing land uses and claims go unrecognised because land users are marginalised from formal land rights and access to the law and institutions.

Another controversy is the land acquisition process. “Some critics consider all foreign acquisitions as illegal land grabs per se.”This is because of the fact that large scale land acquisition occurs in countries with weak land governance and high corruption, and their legitimacy can be questioned. “Even in countries where legal frameworks and land governance institutions are stronger, certain deals may not have been done transparently.”

Other challenges include benefits and benefit arrangements, and environmental impacts. He went on to give a comparative analysis of Ghana and Ethiopia and explained how these two countries dealt with the opportunities and challenges that arose due to the development of bio-energy.

In conclusion, Amsalu said that large scale bio-energy development in Ethiopia and Ghana has had limited success. Existing land acquisition processes are neither transparent nor do they protect the rights of vulnerable people. Alternative models of bio-energy developments should be considered such as small scale and community based productions.

Prof Aklilu Amsalu attained his PhD from the Wageningen University (The Netherlands) in Environmental Management. He is currently a staff member of the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). His research focuses on the impacts of climate change and adaptive strategies; conservation and management of natural resources; livelihood impacts of resource degradation and conservation; and environmental impact assessment. Prof Amsalu has been involved in various international research projects and has published his research internationally.

*Written by Trevor Khanyile



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