The future of biomass energy in Africa; report from the World Bank

In contrast to the rest of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase the number of its residents dependant on wood-based biomass energy over the next 20 years according to a report released this month by the World Bank, titled: “Wood-Based Biomass Energy Development for Sub-Saharan Africa.” This is due to the region’s rising population, urbanization, and to the inadequacy of power grids to meet these demographic changes. The World Bank estimates that 81 percent of households in the Sub-Saharan Africa rely on solid fuels and that most of this is consumed for cooking. The key to Africa’s continued utilization of biomass resources, however, is sustainability. Here the World Bank has identified several areas for development.

One factor to the sustainability of African biomass is a changed policy environment. Biomass energy is big business in Africa. As many as seven million people may be involved in the purchase, transport and resale of wood-based fuels in an industry worth as much as USD 8 billion. By 2030 this is expected to rise to 12 million people and USD 12 billion. Yet most of this is done in informal markets. Few are granted permits to exploit forest resources and, when licensed, issuances are more often based on increasing revenues rather than sustainability. To ameliorate this problem, the World Bank suggests localized resource management. Policy makers are advised to clearly designate land rights with long-term tenures in place to incentivize forest management.

A second area for improvement is the use of more efficient stoves. Most households in Sub-Saharan Africa use a traditional three-stone stove. Local production capacity of improved stove models is insufficient, since those available are often made on a small scale by individual craftsmen. To compensate, the World Bank has initiated a number of programs to educate users on the benefits of more advanced stoves and has introduced imports, including varieties for rural users which are able to utilize several fuel types. In addition to fuel conservation, users of the stoves also benefit from reduced greenhouse gas emissions which are estimated to cause more fatalities each year in Sub-Saharan Africa than tuberculosis.

A final area of consideration is the increased utilization of biogas. To be economically viable, Sub-Saharan biogas systems would need to provide 0.8 – 1.0 m3 of biogas daily—an amount which would require 20 to 30 kilograms of fresh dung each day, obtainable from 3 to 4 cattle. There must also be a water source. This would make biogas feasible for an estimated 18.5 million on the continent. The main hurdle: financing. To overcome large upfront costs, the World Bank has called for increased involvement from microfinance institutions. Organizations such as the Africa Biogas Partnership Program have also noticed biogas’ potential and have targeted 70,000 biogas facilities for countries in Eastern Africa as well as Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Adherence to the World Bank’s guidance is necessary for the sustained utilization of biomass energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region which much use its abundant resources wisely in order to continue its economic dynamism.