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Between dead end and energy transition:
A social-ecological multilevel analysis of transnational biofuel policy

Module three: Case Studies in Sub-Saharan Africa

The impact of the global biofuel hype on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been so far primarily indirectly through price effects on global commodity and food markets. Sub-Saharan Africa currently plays only a marginal role in the global expansion of biofuel production; however, the potential for biofuel production is considered to be large in several African countries. In addition to a few much older investments in biofuel production, several African countries have seen new initiatives in recent years to realize this potential, yet these are still mostly at an experimental or very early commercial stage.

Several opportunities and risks for rural regions arise when African countries become active stakeholders in global biofuel production. Small-scale biofuel production for local community use is likely to bear only few risks; however, export-oriented plantation or contract-farming-based approaches have led to highly controversial debates on the risks and opportunities of biofuels in Sub-Saharan Africa. Much criticism has focused on potential environmental risks, the exclusion of marginal groups, exploitation of local communities, the dependency on volatile energy markets, and risks for local food security. On the other hand, large-scale agro-industrial investments are considered to have large potential for rural development as they provide factors which rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa often lack (technology, management know-how, input and output markets, economies of scale, etc.).  Given the levels of rural poverty and food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa and the role of agriculture as the main income source, the implications of a large biofuel expansion in SSA for rural food security and incomes and for the ability of households to cope with the uncertainties of structural changes in formerly subsistence-oriented regions are of particular importance.

This module therefore focuses on the implications of agro-industrial investments in biofuel feedstocks for rural development in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of poverty, food security, and vulnerability. In particular, the research aims at assessing the following aspects:

  • The direct impacts through wage employment and contract farming on household income, poverty and food production, as well as indirect effects on households not directly involved through rural linkages, spillover effects, and exclusion from value chains and natural resource use.
  • The effects on household food security in terms of food consumption and nutritional status and on the vulnerability of the rural population.


Related to these aspects, the research analyses the role of different institutional arrangements involved in biofuel feedstock production (plantation agriculture and contract farming), biofuel crops, as well as economic and institutional framework conditions. By comparing different institutional arrangements in different settings, it is envisaged that conclusions about institutions and policies that might lead to positive or negative impacts can be derived.

Given the early stage of new biofuel investments, the research focuses on existing agro-industrial investments in potential biofuel feedstock, especially sugarcane and oil palms. Specific agro-industrial investments in the rural areas of two African countries (most probably Ghana and Mozambique or Malawi) will be analysed; this will include household- and community level surveys in the vicinity of existing sugarcane and/or oil palm clusters to be compared to other non-producing regions (quasi-experimental design). Analysis of village-, household- and individual-level data will be done using quantitative and qualitative tools.

Contributions to other components of the overall project (e.g. the role of international norms/standards) will also be part of the research project.