Food security benefits found in African biofuels production

By Susanne Retka Schill | November 17, 2016

Biofuels operations under the right conditions can lead to improved household food security in developing countries, concludes a new study.

Irish university research is adding to the body of knowledge about the impact biofuels production has on food security in Africa.  Stephen Thornhill, research fellow, and colleagues from the University College Cork, Ireland, recently published the results of their work in the SpringerLink journal, Food Security.

In the paper, the authors review the limited development of biofuel production on the continent, which has seen a limited number of successful new biofuel operations. The changing policy environment has not been conducive to that development and investors have become increasingly concerned about future demand potential. For example, EU policy is under pressure to cap the amount of biofuels made from food-based feedstocks and African governments have been slow to introduce supportive policies for their own domestic markets.

Most studies evaluating food security concerns have looked at macro effects, the authors point out, with much less evidence on food security impacts at a local level in developing countries. A limited number of studies have examined the food security impact of biofuel projects, with inconclusive results, often due to the different production models and feedstocks, but also due to weaknesses in the methodologies and measures of food security.

The research reported upon in this paper from Thornhill, et all, focused on a handful of projects in Mozambique and Tanzania, where land is the property of the state and all projects must be approved by the government. By the end of 2008, Mozambique had approved 17 biofuel projects, five for ethanol with the remainder biodiesel projects. That grew to 48 registered projects by late 2010 and dropped back to just 18 by early 2013. Tanzania saw a similar build up and decline in interest, and by 2013, only four approved projects had planted feedstock.

The Irish team’s paper looks at survey data gather in Mozambique and Tanzania in 2009 during the expansion phase of biofuel projects in the region. Of the eight projects selected, two were sugarcane based ethanol and the others were jatropha projects for biodiesel. Five sites were ultimately surveyed. All were in food-insecure, remote rural locations with low population densities and poor infrastructure, practicing semi-subsistence farming.

The research project used a mixed methods approach to collecting both quantitative and qualitative data from 166 households, randomly selected from several villages and hamlets surrounding the biofuel projects and including both those involved and not involved in the biofuel operations. The researchers developed a model to analyze a household nutrient deficit score. “We found that the average household nutrient deficit (a weighted average of calories, protein iron and vitamin A), was 27 percentage points less in households with employees of biofuel feedstock operations than other households in the same locality, after taking into account of the other main influences of food security, such as household size and farm size. The qualitative results confirmed that this was mainly due to increased and more regular income from salaried employment,” Thornhill told EPM.


The average nutrient deficit score for outgrowers supplying feedstock was not significantly different than that for noninvolved households, the researchers found. However, noting the difference between grower systems, a community-based scheme recorded better outcomes than a more traditional one.

“Of the households with employees perceiving an improvement in food security since the biofuel operation was established, most reporter higher income through employment as the main factor, whilst a few also attributed the improvement to better food production,” the researchers reported. “For the outgrowers who reported improved food security, there were a wider variety of reasons put forward, including greater income from feedstock and other crop sales and increased food production. For the fewer households not involved in biofuel production reporting improved food security, the main reason was increased sales of food crops due to increased demand resulting from the biofuel operation.” 

Of the group not involved in biofuels and reporting unchanged food security, more than half were happy with the new biofuel operation, and half felt it “improved income prospects within the community.”  Survey results showed a multiplier effect from the creation of new jobs, such as the expansion of village markets and local farmers, not involved in biofuels directly, benefitting from increased demand for food.

Thornhill shared a final draft of the paper with Ethanol Producer Magazine for this article. The complete paper is available for purchase at this link.