Knowledge for Development

Biofuels – S&T Strategic Options for ACP Countries

Author: Maureen Wilson

Date: 16/04/2007


Production of biofuels offers a lifeline to all ACP sugar producing countries affected by the European Union (EU) sugar reforms which came into effect in July 2006. With the pending implementation of the new sugar regime, industries started restructuring in an attempt to survive and prevent closure. The common theme among all the restructuring plans is energy production. This is currently viewed as attractive not only because of the high prices for fossil fuels but because of the economic and environmental benefits. In the Caribbean region, Jamaica announced plans to start production of ethanol for the transportation sector. Barbados indicated that it would increase the acreage under production and plant more of the fuel cane varieties to utilize the bagasse in electricity generation and also manufacture 24 million litres of fuel ethanol. Belize and Guyana are also planning to introduce cogeneration and St Kitts which had closed its industry is considering reopening in partnership with foreign companies to process its sugarcane output into bioethanol (). In the African region, the Mauritius sugar industry increased its utilization of cane biomass for the generation of electricity and hence its share in the supply of electricity to the national grid (Autry 2004, Avram 2004). Zambia and Malawi have started biodiesel production from the oil plant Jatropha.


Biofuels can be produced in liquid, solid or gas form depending on the raw material and the conversion technology employed. The raw material usually termed biomass includes renewable plant matter, trees, grasses, agricultural crops or animal wastes. The sugarcane plant is the most efficient species of the plant kingdom in terms of biomass production (Brumley, 2007) and as such many persons view the sugarcane as the plant of the future when its potential as a source of bioenergy is considered in a world where oil reserves are finite (Amorim, 2005). The sugar cane can also be bioengineered to produce higher concentrations of sugars, to produce sugar alcohols and chemical precursors to bioplastics (Brumley, 2007). The sugar reform plan ensures that the production of biofuels, carbon-neutral fuels derived from agricultural crops that can be used to partially replace liquid petroleum products will not adversely affect the food chain supplied by these plants. Sugar used for the production of ethanol, as well as by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, will be excluded from the sugar quota.

For centuries, mills have used sugarcane residues, known as bagasse, for electricity generation. Large volumes of biomass (60 – 80 tons/ha) are produced and with greater emphasis on energy efficiencies and implementation of new technologies and process optimization, energy generated from surplus bagasse can be sold to the national electricity grid for added income (Morris, 2002; Turn, 2002). The West Indies Cane Breeding Station has developed, using conventional plant breeding techniques, a variety of cane termed ‘fuel cane’ due to its high biomass content (Albert-Thenet, 2004). The use of this cane will allow for the production of sugar and the installation of cogeneration plants using bagasse as fuel as even more biomass will remain after fuel canes are crushed to remove the juice. The juice can be used for bioethanol or sugar production. Jamaica and Belize have put in nurseries of ‘fuel canes’ variety in preparation for commercial expansion.

In some sugar industries, fermentation techniques are well developed as rum production has been carried out for hundreds of years and so producing ethanol for fuel would be a logical and easy transition for these industries. Brazil and the USA are the world leaders in the production of fuel ethanol and much investment and research have gone into making them the world leaders. The Brazilian industry uses sugarcane as the feedstock whereas the USA industry uses corn starch. Sugar and starch are considered first generation substrates for the production of ethanol. The hydrolysis of lignin results in the formation of sugars which can then be fermented to ethanol and so cellulosic sources of sugars are referred to as second generation substrates (Junginger, 2006). Several different crops are now being planted for their high cellulose content; including cassava, (Manihot esculenta) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). The prevailing climatic condition in the ACP countries allows them to cultivate these crops year round and in some instances several crops per year.

The scientific community has responded well over the years to finding feasible solutions to the world’s problems and the issue of reducing greenhouse gases is a matter of urgency as a mitigating strategy for climate change. It is a fact that the cellulosic technology needed to break down recalcitrant fibers is presently very expensive but the technology is developing rapidly (Junginger, 2006, Jolly, 2006) and within five years should be much cheaper (Bullion, 2006). The use of crop residues for energy purposes rather than the crop itself will reduce conflict between crops as a source of food or energy. Scientists are searching for new enzymes to degrade cellulose in plant material (coniferous wood and agricultural waste, wheat straw) into sugars, are developing new strains of yeast and are producing synergistically acting enzyme mixtures to convert all sugars in cellulose into ethanol (Knauf, 2004) and if possible increase the production of higher value co-products (Wermer, 2006). At the same time engineers and process control technicians are developing systems of enhanced process integration to reduce the amount of energy used in producing bioethanol and to achieve via the Zeachem technology, energy efficiency of 95% compared with 46% obtained by traditional methods (Edye, 2004).

Renessen, a biotechnology company, has tested a GM maize hybrid which when combined with a novel dry corn separation technique designed for an ethanol facility will result in a more easily fermentable ethanol medium (Bullion, 2006). This will increase the profitability of maize to growers and boost ethanol production. Brazil’s bio-safety commission has given approval to the Centre for Cane Technology (CTC), to start field trials of transgenic cane which are found to exhibit sucrose content of at least 15% higher than the typical variety ( The Indian government is also interested in this technology and has declared that it will open discussions with Brazil to share in it in some way.

The European Union is not self sufficient and may never be self sufficient in the production of biofuels to meet its demand and so will need to import. Presently biodiesel is produced from rapeseed oil and bioethanol from beet sugar in quantities sufficient to meet about 3% of its needs and herein lie opportunities for ACP countries to supply bioethanol and biodiesel to their long time trading partners. ACP countries need to be aggressive in searching for new and useful technologies for producing biofuels in the most cost effective, efficient and sustainable manner as this can propel countries into being energy self sufficient and provide or save foreign exchange.

More countries are introducing regulations for the addition of ethanol to gasoline for the transportation industry. It is important for national governments within the ACP group to put in place the necessary legislation mandating local production and use of biofuels e.g. the addition of ethanol in gasoline will provide domestic markets for bioethanol and use of biodiesel. Development and implementation of policy options for the promotion of bioenergy is vital to the success of the biofuel industry (Janssen, 2002). This type of legislation has been the driving force behind the rapid growth and expansion of the bioethanol industry in Brazil (Amorim, 2005) and is currently pushing the industry in the USA (Janssen, 2002). In 2005, Mauritius introduced a policy calling for the phasing out of coal as a supplementary fuel for electricity production to be replaced by solid biofuel and the production of ethanol to reduce gasoline demand. This has enabled the industry to be very successful.

In ACP countries, biofuels are already being locally produced by indigenous agro-industries using potato, maize, cassava, citrus, banana, sugar cane, rice husks, sewage, palm oil, sorghum, Jatropha and all biodegradable wastes. The advantage is that money spent on imported fuels will be retained within the national economy. The production of biofuels offers opportunities for large, medium and small enterprises. For the production of transport fuel and electricity generation, there will likely be a mix of medium and large enterprises. For ethanol there will be a mix of sugar cane and fuel cane, for electricity there will be a mix of bagasse, wood and biogas. The production of biogas can be done by small enterprises such as farms, office complexes, apartment buildings, individual businesses and households. Vegetable oils and waste cooking oils can be fermented to produce biodiesel, a substitute for diesel.

High agricultural production is a labour intensive activity in many developing countries so it increases employment and provides wages in rural population. Safeguarding rural livelihoods is therefore of paramount importance. The production of crops for biofuels promises improved efficiency and sustainability in the way land is used as marginal lands can be used to grow these crops, as is done in India, for the growing of Jatropha, a plant that bears nuts high in oil content that are used for the production of biodiesel ( Strict management of these projects must be carried out to achieve maximum yield and high productivity as agronomic factors, for example, the rapid increase in the price of fertilizers can negatively impact the correct application and likewise the harvesting and management of available water is also important for maximum production. Removal of crop residues can impact negatively on soil structure and promote erosion and affect negatively the ecosystem. Therefore strategies for managing crop residues must be developed for sustainability (Lal, 2006).

The challenge for the ACP countries is to find resources to embark on large scale production of biofuel by buying into the best technology and processes available. This will require cutting edge technology to maximize the costs benefits as this can be a capital intensive project. ACP countries cannot afford to fund these projects. The Brazilian government is advocating partnerships in biofuels production between developed and developing countries as the way forward in respect of poverty alleviation and rural development and the reduction of greenhouse gases. During the month of February 2007, the partnership between the Jamaican and Brazilian governments deepened with the signing of several agreements for technical assistance in the production of bioethanol. Guyana signed a similar agreement with Brazil.

The USA are teeming up with Brazil to set up ethanol pilot programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, with four countries including St. Kitts and Nevis, an ACP country, being listed by the Inter-American Development Bank as prime candidates. As more countries embark on the production and subsequent export of biofuels to meet the demands of developed countries, the need for standardization becomes urgent. Brazil and the USA are responsible for 70% of the global ethanol production and presently these two countries are working together to create a global standard for ethanol, defining levels of impurities and solid residues ( Bioethanol is made from starch and sugar and biodiesel from many different kinds of vegetable oils and so it is important that standards are developed for certification even as the world awaits the mass production of ethanol from cellulosic materials. There is also the need for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to set rules and standards for future biofuel trades as to their classification whether as agricultural, industrial or even environment goods ( Scientists in ACP countries must be prepared to advise governments and participate in this process.

These are exciting days for ACP countries and especially the sugar producing ones as opportunities are available for the production of agro-energy crops and for converting agricultural wastes to biofuels. A new cycle of prosperity is possible but there is need to reflect on lessons from past systems. The sugar industry is approaching new frontiers and there is the opportunity to diversify and participate in new markets which can result in social and rural development as benefits of biofuels industries accrue due to the increased employment, income generating opportunities, energy security, infrastructure development, capacity building, human resources development and training and as new jobs become available in these agro-energy industries. Biofuels development will require careful management and public sector support (Hazell, 2006). It is vitally important that governments put in place the necessary legislation (Jolly and Woods, 2006) for the use of domestically produced biofuel (Amorim, 2005). This will also serve to give investors the stamp of approval. Key partnerships are necessary and strategic alliances should be sought with enzyme producing companies, biotechnology firms, large energy related corporations and of course where possible with the world leader, Brazil, whose government is quite keen to share the expertise with developing countries.

Maureen. R. Wilson (PhD) ( ), Sugar Industry Research Institute, Kendal Rd, Mandeville, Jamaica


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