Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted March 1996

Energy for Sustainable Development and Food Security in Africa


extracted from "Future energy requirements for Africa's agriculture" (FAO, 1995)


At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 41 African nations endorsed Agenda 21 as a comprehensive international framework and action programme for sustainable development. Energy matters are addressed in many sections of the Agenda 21 and the following recommendations were made with respect to energy and agriculture:

Accompanying the need for a transition from subsistence energy use - now based on human labour and fuelwood - toward supplies that are balanced with effective demand, is the importance of sustainable agriculture and rural development and food security. Both topics are of paramount concern to Africa.

The sustainability challenge in Africa

FAO has defined sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) as:

"...the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of the human needs for present and future generations. Such sustainable development (in agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors) conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable. "

In Africa, these goals are not easily attainable over the short or medium-term. High population densities relative to productive capacity, landlessness, malnutrition and extreme poverty will inevitably lead to degradation of the natural resource base unless special measures are taken to improve levels of training and education, raise incomes, and promote investment.

It has been estimated that about 130 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in areas where fuelwood consumption outpaces the natural regenerative capacity of the forest. In such circumstances, the degradation is compounded by greater reliance on energy sources such as dung or unused plant material, which play an important role in maintaining soil fertility and structure for future production.

In addition to these, and other problems related to environmental degradation, economic performance in agriculture has generally been dismal. During the period 1965-1980, agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa grew at a rate of 1.8 per cent per annum against a population growth rate of 2.7 per cent. During the 1980s agricultural growth lagged even further behind population growth (1.4 per cent and 3.1 per cent respectively), compounding land degradation, food shortfalls and food insecurity.

The elements of sustainability, many of which have important information and technology components, are not easily adapted to the constraints faced in Africa, which is starting from a low base. Africa's average annual fertilizer use is only 20 kg per hectare against a world average of 96; its crop land is only 6 per cent irrigated against a world average of 17 per cent. Similarly the average number of tractors and harvesters is below that of the world and other regions.

The availability of adequate water resources for agriculture is essential for increased production. Between 1960 and 1980, water resources in Africa declined from 16.5 million cubic metres per caput to 9.4. By the year 2000 this is expected to reach 5.1. It is projected that by the end of the 1990s, six out of seven East African countries and all five north African countries bordering the Mediterranean sea (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) will face acute water shortages.

Food security in Africa

Africa has more countries with food security problems than any other region. Two-thirds of all countries suffering food insecurity are in Africa, where GDP has declined for six consecutive years. Of the 44 countries with poor or critical food security, 30 are in Africa. Present trends would mean that the number of chronically undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa would rise from 180 to 300 million by the year 2010.

FAO has recently incorporated the three elements of its broadened concept of food security - availability, stability of supply and access - into an index of household food security. The Aggregate Household Food Security Index (AHFSI) calculates the "food gap" between the undernourished and average national requirements, the instability of the annual food supply and the proportion of undernourished in the total population. The index ranges from 0 to 100, with 100 representing complete, risk-free, food security and zero, total famine.

FAO categorized the food security situation an index rating below 65 as "critical". Between 1991-93 the following African countries were in this category: Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia and Zambia. African countries with "low" food security, an index reading between 65 and 75, included Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zaire and Zimbabwe.

In many African countries the index rating fell by more than 2 per cent between 1988-1990 and 1991-93, excluding emergency food aid. These countries were: Botswana, Central African Republic, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mozambique, Rwanda. Senegal, Somalia. Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo and Zimbabwe. Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius and Zambia suffered even greater declines in food security. In contrast, the AHFSI index placement improved by 2 per cent or more during the same survey period in Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Sudan and irrespective of their 1994 AHFSI rating. No Sub-Saharan African country has a high-level food security rating (over 85).

The imperative of increasing food security in Africa calls for important and fundamental changes in the relationships between government institutions and rural communities. Decentralisation, empowerment (i.e. control over planning and allocation of financial resources), and clear and equitable property rights are all essential components. But governments will continue to have an important role in establishing sectoral policy for many areas, especially the energy transition. Special consideration is needed to policies that provide incentives to invest in energy technologies and supplies that are sustainable and cost effective, even if it requires a brief period of financial support.

An energy transition for SARD and food security

In the African countries, a transition to sustainable energy systems is needed to accelerate the growth of basic food production, harvesting and processing. However, breaking the current energy bottleneck must also be sustainable - i.e. environmentally sound, socially acceptable and economically viable. Such a transition involves a commitment to long-term developmental goals and requires innovative policy and technological solutions.

For Africa, an energy transition would be characterized by a move from the present levels of subsistence energy usage based on human labour and fuelwood resources, to a situation where household, services and farming activities use a range of sustainable and diversified energy sources. Obvious benefits are greater resilience in the production system, higher productivity, improved efficiency and higher incomes to farmers. Environmental degradation, driven primarily by poverty, would be minimized.

The investment required to make such a transition would not be significantly different from that required for conventional approaches. However, the process of identifying needs and promoting investment in a range of technological options would be considerably different. Among current problems are the following:

The energy transition in rural areas will not occur under a "business-as usual" situation. A concerted effort is needed on the part of the many actors influencing energy supply and demand patterns. One challenge is to reduce the barriers facing rural energy development which arise from a lack of policy and programme coordination between the rural and agricultural sectors, and the energy sector institutions. The rural sector continues to remain outside energy assessment and planning, which are normal practice for industry, commerce, transport. This is due, in part, to the small impact rural energy has on the national energy balance. Because of its meagre energy consumption and poor data, the important role agriculture plays as a source of food and fibre, foreign exchange and a relatively large percentage of GDP, is often ignored.

The dispersed and often non-monetized nature of rural energy also contributes to its neglect in planning and investment. Energy authorities rarely have an institutional or operational presence in rural areas and only a few agriculture and rural development programmes deal explicitly with rural energy requirements. This is due, in part, to lack of technical capability. However, a change in mind-set is also needed among policy makers to recognize the potential economic and social gains to be realized from increasing energy supply in rural areas. These gains will translate into improved use and management of land resources by allowing more efficient use of resources and less degrading land-use practices, such as excessive fuelwood use.

National agricultural and rural development authorities, normally without any mandate regarding energy matters, are often incapable of negotiating their energy requirements with electricity utility companies and energy authorities. Thus, a "vacuum" of responsibility and lack of guidance for energy interventions in rural areas seems to exist in most countries. No institution is actually "in charge" of energy for development of the rural and agricultural sector. This leads to low allocation of resources and investment for rural development and agricultural activities vis-a-vis other sectors of the economy. Since no single institution, either governmental, local or private could alone cope with all issues involved, a political interest, coupled with effective inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration is required.

Promoting food security will inevitably involve increases in energy inputs for water supply and management, plant nutrients, agro-processing and community lighting. Consistent with the SARD framework, there is need to shift the emphasis from single-issue solutions to more integrated, sustainable approaches to development.

For example, pesticides alone are not sufficient or economically cost-effective in controlling most pest problems. Strategies now exist for many crops which involve understanding the pest life cycle, economic damage thresholds and the effects of cultivation practices which can greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for regular pesticide applications. Integrated pest management (IPM) is an effective way of reducing production costs and avoiding the associated risk of pollution and contamination. Similar evidence of the benefits from integrated approaches exists for mineral fertilizers. Integrated plant nutrition systems (IPNS) that use organic materials, leguminous crop rotation, and cultivation practices to maintain the optimal balance of soil structure and plant nutrients for agriculture are more beneficial economically to farmers than solely relying on mineral fertilizers. In both examples, environmental protection and cost efficiency can be realized.

The efficient use of increasingly scarce water resource in Africa does not imply large scale, energy-intensive irrigation schemes. Small pumps have had an important beneficial effect on irrigation in some African countries for vegetable and even rice production. Where surface water is available this technology represents a well distributed and energy efficient option. Experience in Africa has shown that the way in which the water resource is made available, both its price and mode of delivery, will determine whether the resource is used sustainably. Thus irrigation schemes should follow the principles established by the International Action Programme on Water and Sustainable Agricultural Development ,which takes into account the planning, development and management of water resources in an integrated manner.

Also important is the potential for biomass energy conversion technologies. Residues from wood and agro-industries, purposely grown biomass and municipal solid wastes may play a major role in many African countries. The economic and social assessment of these options is needed to avoid disrupting employment and resource use. Local and global environmental benefits of biomass energy conversion must also be considered.

As a result of UNCED, efforts are under way to develop national Agenda 21's. These provide valuable entry point for countries to fully integrate rural energy requirements and potentials into their energy and SARD strategies. They involve multidisciplinary and convergent actions at both national and local levels, which draw together energy, agricultural and environmental knowledge, experience and policies. National and district rural energy strategies are needed to provide a common framework and plan to direct investment and pull together the efforts of various ministries such as Agriculture, Energy, Forestry, Planning and Agrarian Reform. NGOs, local community groups, and the private sector have an important role to play in such initiatives. There are signs in some African countries such as Ghana, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zimbabwe that new institutional and energy planning approaches are gradually emerging to improve the availability of rural energy supply for rural development.

Awareness of the constraints facing national and local authorities when trying to solve energy problems in rural areas is being increasingly converted into action. Decentralization of the decision making process and of energy production, enhanced social participation, institutional linkages, and the entry of new technologies are only some of the elements which will directly and indirectly influence a mobilization of efforts towards achieving food security and SARD.



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