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Nigerian Expert: Biofuels as Alternative Fuel May Not Be Best Choice

Biofuels are gaining credibility as a supplement to petroleum fuel in some developed as well as developing countries. Biofuels are made from plant waste, including sugarcane and cassava. But some say prospects of using biofuel in large quantities in Nigeria is limited by some constraints regarding resources and costs.

VOA English to Africa’s Isiyaku Ahmed filed this report, first reminding us that crude oil is fuel for engines that run automobiles and planes. But with global competition for shrinking petroleum resources and the ensuing increase in fuel prices, the relatively inexpensive biofuels are beginning to look attractive.

Scientists say biofuels from maize could help run cars, sugar could produce electricity and palm oil could help generate power. Among the food crops that can be made into fuels are: maize, palm trees, sugarcane, beetroot, wheat, groundnuts, pumpkin, sesame and cotton seeds, and the woody shrub called jatropha.

The South African Mail and Guardian newspaper says Nigeria last year awarded two oil concessions to INC Resources after it committed $4-billion to an ethanol project in the northern state of Jigawa. Some say cassava would be a prime candidate for fuel in Nigeria. Africa is a leading producer of the starchy cassava tuber, a staple food for over 200 million Africans.

Dr. Hakeem Ajeigbe is crop-livestock Project manager at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Kano Station. He supervises improved seedlings and grains at the research institute. He is not optimistic about the use of biofuel in Nigeria. He says Nigeria is rich in mineral resources, and there’s a lucrative business built around petroleum extraction. He also offers other reasons for doubting the viability of using plant-based fuels, “Biofuel is the process of getting fuel from biological materials and these days mostly they are concentrating on plants, sugarcane for example. Biofuel in its use is environmentally friendly because it will [emit] water vapour instead of carbon dioxide; but in getting the fuel I’m not too sure if it is environmentally friendly.”

Hakeem says the crops grown as biofuels are some of the same crops needed to feed the hungry; also, he says biofuel crops would be competing with other crops for water, “For example, most of the countries that are using it now say Brazil, China and to a large extent also India they are using sugarcane. Here we can produce a lot of sugarcane in northern Nigeria but the amount of water that is needed to produce sugarcane is a lot.”

Hakeem also says plants are needed for sustainable biofuel but the planting might be insufficient to serve an increasing population which increases demand for food. Therefore crop production will be competitive between demand for food and demand for biofuels. He says he’d prefer to see food crops grown rather than sugarcane for biofuel.

The doctor says he prefers an alternative to biofuels -- biogas made from animal waste: “We have a lot of materials for this, poultry droppings, cow manure, ruminant manure could be used for biogas. In several communities in India, especially in the rural communities, you find the farmers generating cooking gas from buffalo droppings and whatever is remaining is taken to the farm as manure. We can do that here, we can use all these ruminant droppings, poultry droppings. Human waste could be used as biogas and that will be sustainable and good for us.”

Biogas is principally used to supply household energy for cooking and lighting without the threat of competition for food resources generated from using biofuels.