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Africa Takes Closer, But Still Wary Look at Biofuels


Africa's search for affordable ways to feed its people, rejuvenate land resources and break the poverty cycle is leading it back to bioenergies. A conference underway in Addis Ababa is brimming with ideas for resolving the "food versus fuel" controversy that doomed earlier biofuel projects.

Thinkers and visionaries from all over the world are congregating in the Ethiopian capital for the second Africa bioenergies conference.

Ihab Farag of the University of New Hampshire in the United States is here to talk about the potential of micro-algae to produce a carbon-neutral alternative to petroleum diesel fuel. Hans Keuken from the Netherlands is outlining a patented discovery that makes it possible to use a much cheaper type of ethanol for gasoline blends.

Bothwell Bathidzirai of Zimbabwe is explaining the lessons for Africa in successful Latin American and Asian energy crop production and agroforestry systems. And Mary Mgonja of Kenya is tackling head on the "food versus fuel debate", promoting a strategy for identifying feedstock sources that do not compete with food production, but instead produce both food and fuel.

In an opening address, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told experts and government officials from 45 countries that past bioenergy projects had done his country more harm than good because prime forests and food crop lands had been diverted to fuel production.

"As the productivity of agriculture stagnated, and pressure of growing population intensified, our forests, the sources of much of our bio energy, have been subjected to massive deforestation and degradation. Traditional inefficient use of bio energy has affected agricultural growth negatively," he said.

Mr. Meles said new ideas in bioenergy are essential if countries like Ethiopia are to feed their growing populations and break their dependence on environmentally-damaging fossil fuels.

"The transformation of the interaction between agriculture and bio energy in Africa from a negative to a positive one, is thus not only necessary and possible, but also a key means of adjusting african economies to climate change. This is our path to transforming the challenge of global warming into an opportunity for economic growth and transformation," he said.

In the main hall of Addis Ababa's United Nations Conference Center, the talk is about things like clean energy strategies for making African agriculture more profitable.

Bill Levine of Los Angeles is here promoting a concept called enzyme stabilization for building durable, low cost roads that would expand farmers' ability to market their goods.

"You take liquid enzyme, dilute it, you spray on a road, you compact and it becomes harder when it rains. It can withstand huge traffic loads. So...your crop is only as good as how you can get it to market, so if you decrease the time you can get it to market, make sure fruit is not bruised or damaged, you're increasing your income. A lot of sectors in Ethiopia and Africa that don't have road access, so suddenly you have huge agriculture acres opening up," he said.

Many delegates attending this conference are hopeful an African Green Revolution might take off following the twin setbacks of the global economic downturn and the 'food versus fuel' debate. They say funds for bioenergy projects will be available later this year as the flow of capital and credit returns to markets.

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