Africa can use its idle, arable land for biofuel and save Earth

Sunday December 17 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG


Recently, while many planes converged on Dubai to deliver thousands of delegates to the climate change Conference of Parties, a flight much more useful to the climate cause left London for New York. The Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 Dreamliner was powered 100 percent with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) made from plant matter, known as biofuel.

The feat, the first such flight to cross the Atlantic, which lasted some seven hours, should have received a standing ovation at the COP28 in Dubai, for planes are notorious carbon emitters, and flying one using biofuel instead of fossil fuel reduces the offensive emissions that cause global warming by 80 percent.

While the road and railway transport are steadily being cleaned by substituting fuel with electricity, batteries are too heavy to be used in flying a plane, so aviation will continue burning fuel for the foreseeable future.

And while the Swedes are already building electrified roads to reduce the size of big car batteries, electrifying paths in the sky would take thousands of years.

Read: BUWEMBO: Jinja is becoming Green Energy Valley

So, what is Africa, which has the world’s largest arable land, doing to reduce aviation-induced global warming?


Without idealistically asking Africa to commit land for growing clean fuel, has it dawned on our thinkers at the African Union and in governments that there is big money in producing biofuel?

Sceptics may argue that it will take a lot of land to produce the SAF required to fly all planes around the world. But sceptics are always there. At the start of the 20th century, some of the world’s wisest persons firmly concluded that a machine heavier than air can never fly.

Hardly had the words come out of their wise mouths than the Wright brothers flew a machine heavier than air for several seconds, and the rest became history.

And would Africa gain by not using its fertile, idle land for growing fuel to clean the sky, which is being choked by the more than 45,000 flights that take to the air daily (according to the Federal Aviation Administration)?

The US government has set a target of three billion gallons of SAF to be produced by 2030 yet, today, the International Air Transport Association barely sees 30 million SAF gallons a year from all over the world. The three billion is unlikely to be attained in six years, meaning the demand can hardly be met — for America alone.

Others may say land for producing food must not be for growing fuel. But it is not being used for food either, so it may as well be used for money. And employment.

Read: BUWEMBO: We’re damned if fuel middlemen win, lose

Yes, the beauty with biofuel is that its milling factories would have to be built right where the crops are grown — you don’t transport tonnes of plant matter overseas to extract less than a tenth of the weight in fuel. So, 100 or so people would be employed on a square mile of a biofuel farm, and another 100 in converting the plant to fuel.

And what plants are we talking of anyway? These are plants that East Africa has extremely favourable conditions to grow. Sugar cane, whose product, sugar, lacks a market; maize, which is being rejected over aflatoxin, and jatropha, which Ugandans only plant to support a few climbing plants for vanilla.

Anyway, national biofuel ventures should be established over idle lands. After fuel being extracted, what remains can be used for electric energy production, as happens with sugar.

By generating electricity as you mill biofuel, you can dedicate the current to powering ground transport — that is railways and car charging stations. This is better that what happens today in countries where half the electricity generated in water dams is wasted because it is neither consumed nor storable. Yet production at fuel mills can be synchronised with the train movement times, and for charging swap batteries (already in use for motorbikes in Kenya and Uganda).

The land-for-food argument falls flat on the face because Africa just needs to increase the yield per acre using better farming methods to produce fuel and food from the same plot.

Instead of, or besides the indignity of begging for climate funds, Africa can make money by growing clean aviation fuel, whose demand may be insatiable for the rest of our lives.