News & Media
News and Media
Harvesting sugar cane in Malawi. All photos by Vikram Seebaluck, University of Mauritius.
A new book edited by SEI’s Francis Johnson argues that the highly productive, versatile crop could be a key part of a more sustainable, but also profitable economy for several countries.
In the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference, there has been heightened interest in sustainable development and the “green economy”, but high-level policy debates offer few tangible and economically competitive solutions to the triple challenge of energy insecurity, climate change and rural poverty.
A new Earthscan/Routledge book edited by SEI Senior Research Fellow Francis X. Johnson and Vikram Seebaluck, head of the Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at the University of Mauritius, aims to provide tangible options for these countries to improve their people’s lives, foster low-carbon development and connect with the global economy.
Titled Bioenergy for Sustainable Development and International Competitiveness: The Role of Sugar Cane in Africa, and with contributions from 44 African and international authors, the book explores the energy and development potential for sugar cane, focusing especially in southern and eastern Africa, where sugar cane is already widely grown on a large scale. The authors find that sugar cane could play a significant role in agro-industrial development through the concurrent production of various energy and non-energy products.
The region can learn from the success of major biofuels players such as Brazil and from the island state of Mauritius, where sugar cane bagasse electricity has become a major part of the national power supply mix – but each country will also need to adapt the strategies to meet local priorities.
A competitive advantage
“Sugar cane bioenergy initiatives in Africa have generally moved slowly, despite the tremendous potential”, says Johnson. “But Africa has some of the world’s most competitive sugar producers; they just have not yet extended those achievements into the energy side of the equation.”
“The technologies used for ethanol and electricity production are mature and well established,” adds Seebaluck, “and there exist several opportunities for boosting up the potential and energy productivity. This means there is less risk involved in investments, which facilitates access to funding.”
The book is geared especially to international and African policy-makers, investors, donors, multilaterals and NGOs with an interest in agro-energy and agro-industrial development. It includes chapters on the entire production and market chain, from agronomy and breeding to industrial infrastructure, trade, financing, policy formulation, implementation and socio-economic and environmental sustainability. It also points out caveats and limitations: for example, sugar cane is not optimal for areas with water scarcity or water stress.
A crop like no other
Yet sugar cane specifically has many advantages, Johnson notes. It’s the most climate-friendly feedstock for liquid biofuels, which oil-importing countries could find very valuable. And it can be used in many other ways: for co-generation of heat and electricity (as the primary use, or as a side-industry using the leftover bagasse), or in the production of bio-based products such as bio-plastics or fine chemicals.
“The crop is in fact unique, in the sense that it uses its by-product – the bagasse left after cane juice extraction – to supply the energy needs for sugar making and bioethanol production and producing a significant amount of surplus electricity,” says Seebaluck. This means sugar cane has both an excellent energy balance, and an excellent greenhouse-gas balance, making it “the best commercial crop for biofuels production.”
Johnson also stresses the importance of finding concrete solutions to African countries’ challenges, and of recognising that while no solution is perfect, forgoing development is not an option.
“African countries need infrastructure, and they need investment in a big way if they wish to develop modern competitive economies”, Johnson says. “A resource like this one, in which they have comparative advantages in labour costs and land availability, should be particularly valuable as a part of their strategies to out their economies on a path that is more sustainable and more competitive in the long run.”
Learn more and order the book from Routledge »
Read an interview with Francis X. Johnson published during COP17 in Durban »