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Wood, charcoal and animal waste have been used traditionally to light fires for cooking, brick making as well as a series of activities vital to human wellbeing. Biomass can however be used more efficiently today using modern technologies to produce carbon free energy. Encompassing a large range of resources such as plant mass, municipal waste, industrial process byproducts are all forms of biomass that can be used in a socially responsible manner to help close the energy gap currently facing African populations.  If harvested sustainably biomass resources can help protect Africa’s forest ecosystems against deforestation that can result from extensive wood collection.

Some forms of biomass can be converted into biofuel to serve as fuel for transport.  Oil seeds such as soy, sunflower, oil palm, jatropha and even food waste can be chemically converted into biodiesel and fuelled directly into the tanks of cars. Within a village biodiesel can be used to power pumps needed for irrigation, provide lighting, or run machines needed to perform essential tasks such as grain milling. 

A crucial dilemma raised by biofuels is that they give rise to competition between using food resources for either nutritional needs or energy. Bioenergy could in principle be produced from plants that can grow on marginal soils where agriculture could not take place so as to prevent competition with food production. However the technology that yields energy from such plants as agave or grass remains in its infancy.

Sugar residue presents a valuable resource for production of energy.  The island economy of Mauritius is widely recognized as a success story for targeting bagasse, the energy rich residue of sugar to produce electricity in Mauritius.   Over 40% of national electricity needs of the island economy are produced by the burning of bagasse that yields electric energy while also boosting the economy in multiple ways.  Revenues from electricity production have helped upgrade the country’s sugar cane sector, an important employer of Mauritius economy hence helping to ensure that growth reaches a wide section of the labor force.

Digested animal waste can be used to produce biogas by using household biogas digesters. Based on the waste produced by between 4-6cattle  a household bio digester can produce around two cubic meters of biogas per day enough for  a household of four to meet its cooking and lighting needs. The outflow from the digested animal waste can also be used as a nitrogen fertilizer for agriculture creating additional benefits for households.  Use of biogas digesters can help cut back on greenhouse gas emissions as well as ensure greater energy autonomy and realize time savings from reduced time spent in search of fuel wood. Moreover replacing kerosene as cooking fuel with biogas would avoid important indoor air pollution helping to reduce respiratory illnesses currently affecting millions of people in sub Saharan Africa.

Still in their early phase of deployment biofuels may unleash new momentum in the transition from a fossil fuel to a carbon free energy system. Biofuels are a complex issue interacting with the way people grow food, earn incomes and decide among alternative future paths. including regulations and effective environmental and social sustainability standards need to be addressed adequately. 

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