West African Bio-economies: Opportunities & Challenges (Part 1)

What would a sustainable African bio-economy look like? Some of the pathways considered for bio-economy development in developed countries involve overhauling already-established technologies. Does this suggest that developing countries without similar existing technologies are poised to experience the benefit of forethought that comes from learning from the mistakes of more developed countries? For brevity, the next set of blog posts will focus on the bio-economy trends and possibilities in some West African countries.

Energy supply in Sub-Saharan Africa: Some numbers from Nigeria

Many Sub-Saharan African countries rely on wood and waste biomass to meet their energy needs. In Nigeria, one of the most populous countries on the African continent, these energy sources accounted for up to 85% of the energy consumed based on 2012 estimates, with the residential sector being the largest beneficiary. For manufacturing companies, nearly half of their electricity requirements were met using privately owned diesel or petrol generators [1]. While the electricity generation capacity is estimated to be about 12.5 GW (comprised of 10.6 GW fossil fuel and 1.9 GW hydro-electric power) [1,2], only a small fraction of this power is available. It is estimated that about 55% of the populace do not have access to grid electricity. In Sub-Saharan Africa generally, numbers are grimmer as only about 32% had access to electricity as at 2014 [3]. Some reasons for this limited energy supply include insufficient electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure, and inadequate regulations and policies [1].

Grid or Off-Grid power?

The Nigerian electricity grid system is under developed – even if more electricity can be generated, transmission is limited to about 4,000 MW. This means the options available include building more transmission lines, or developing more off-grid systems. One of the challenges of building more transmission lines is that this endeavour largely depends on the government for funding and project management. Government involvement means lengthy deliberations/bureaucracy and uncertain progress. Funding can be obtained from subsidies and from the potential beneficiaries of the energy (i.e., residential and commercial consumers). While this sounds great in theory, how many consumers are willing to pay for this, given the government’s history of failed promises? What about public-private partnerships, then? Might the presence of private companies increase energy generation efficiency? Many questions indeed...

Renewable energy opportunities in West Africa: From zero to hero?

The digital economy gained traction in African countries within a relatively short timeframe compared to developed nations – bypassing landline telephone systems and heading straight into mobile and wireless services. This may explain why some environmentalists are hopeful for rapid developments within the African bio-economy; just like the digital economy, there is a clear need, market, and resource availability for more sustainable energy. A number of renewable energy systems are in place in some West African countries. In Nigeria, the 2007 National Biofuel Policy & Incentives plan mirrored other nations’ goals for reducing dependence on non-renewable energy sources to improve economic and climate control. Another aim of this plan was to stimulate the agricultural sector, by incorporating bioethanol and biodiesel products into existing fossil fuels for export [1].

The most successful Nigerian renewable energy systems in terms of scale and longevity thus far have been the hydropower and biogas energy systems. Some numbers: commercial-scale grid-connected hydropower with an operating capacity of less than 1 GW and a 124 cubic metre fixed dome biogas plant was recently constructed in Niger State, Nigeria based on animal waste. 10–20 cubic metre biogas plants in Lagos, Abuja and Oyo operate with animal and human waste, with a larger 1,500 cubic metre biogas plant under construction by Avenam Links Ltd. Companies like Green Energy Biofuels produce clean cookstoves, and state that over 200,000 cookstoves have been sold in Ghana and Nigeria, and the company also produces ethanol gel from sawdust and water hyacinth plants. These are promising steps, but some lessons can be learnt from past mistakes.

[1] Bagu et al. (2016). Captive power in Nigeria: A comprehensive guide to project development.
[2] USAID (2017). Nigeria: Power Africa Fact Sheet.
[3] IEA (2014). Africa energy outlook: A focus on energy prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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