An introduction to biofuels and their role in Africa


In today’s world of growing sources of renewable energy, there is a rise in biofuels. They are natural sources of energy that come from biomass: living matter. These are sources specifically to be used as fuel such as maize or soybeans, amongst others.

Biofuels can be first-generation made from food crops grown on land like sugarcane and jatropha, or second-generation made from various types of biomass. Biofuels are seen as more sustainable than non-renewable forms of energy such as fossil fuels, coal and natural gas. However, there is some debate on how sustainable they actually are.


Biofuels refers to the fuels that come from sources in the form of ‘bioethanol’ or ‘biodiesel’. Essentially, different organisms like yeast and bacteria are used to breakdown certain substances in the crops. These produce ethanol or similar products. Finally, these products are refined and purified, additives such as vegetable oils are added. Together they form bioethanol or biodiesel, depending on the combinations used. Specifically, in Africa, it is primarily sugarcane and molasses that are used to produce ethanol and jatropha crops to produce biodiesel.

Biofuels come from carbon fixation. Carbon fixation is when carbon in an inorganic form (such as CO2) is converted into more organic or natural forms. Once this carbon fixation takes place in the environment, certain substances are removed from the crop. These tend to be alcohols that are flammable, meaning that they can burn easily. These produce high amounts of energy. It is through this process that biofuels are produced and used.


Biofuels are said to be more sustainable than many other forms of energy. Burning of the biofuels to release energy. The fuels release CO2 which is a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming. However, they do not produce any sort of smoke or dangerous chemicals that can directly impact humans, plants and animals unlike other sources like coal.

Many nations depend on other countries for sources of energy. However, with the use of biofuels, countries can farm their own crops and have enough raw materials to grow them. This increases independence in terms of the country’s energy sector. Africa’s abundance of land is a big advantage when it comes to crop growing.  It has the possibility to harness biofuels in a way that benefits the economy while reducing environmental impacts.


A number of African countries have started investing in the biofuel industry. Since the 1980s, biofuels have been used in Zimbabwe. Their production capacity has exceeded 37.5 million litres! Similarly, Malawi and Mauritius have increased use and production of biofuels.

There is a lot of scope for growth of biofuel in Africa. On a similar note, there are several ethanol plants in countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Egypt, Swaziland, Ethiopia and Uganda. Along with this, countries like Comoros and Lesotho depend heavily on biomass sources. These provides more than 70% of their energy! This suggests the importance of biofuels as a source of energy not only for the environment, but also in present-day Africa.



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