Food or biofuel seems to be the question

The government of Swaziland announced this week that it would be allocating thousands of hectares to a private company to cultivate cassava for biofuel. About 40 percent of the country's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages.

"The cassava ethanol project has restarted the debate on how the country should use its agriculture land," said Sipho Mthetfwa, an agriculture extension officer in Shiselweni Region in the south of the country.

"The quick answer is, 'to grow food for the people', but government's stance is that we need to develop industry and new markets so people can collect wages and buy food, because traditional agriculture is too undependable."

As oil prices soar and biofuel production becomes more attractive, especially to poor countries, a global debate is raging over the possible impact on food security.

By placing the cassava project in drought-affected Lavumisa, in southeastern Shiselweni, where agriculture has been limping along for years, government is attracting criticism that it favours exports over food security at home.

"This year's drought has been nationwide, but drought has hit Lavumisa for 15 years," said Mthetfwa. "There are mostly small landholder farmers here - they are too poor to buy inputs for irrigation. And don't talk to them about alternative, drought-tolerant crops - they don't want to grow anything other than maize ... [which] has not grown well in years."

Time for cassava

Cassava is drought-tolerant and productive in poor soils, and has traditionally been grown by poor farmers in marginal areas. Between 1961 and 1995, cassava production for human consumption rose by 50 percent in Africa and 70 percent in Asia, the leading producer of cassava-derived starches, which are now being fermented to produce biofuel, according to the FAO.

Liquefied cassava starch is fermented from two to four days using a yeast, sometimes in combination with a bacterium. "A basic production plant - peelers, graters, fermenters and a distiller - can produce about 280 litres of 96 percent pure ethanol from a tonne of cassava with 30 percent starch content," the FAO says on its website.

The Swazi government is allocating unirrigated land to a local concern called USA Distilleries, which makes molasses from the sugar cane grown in the eastern lowveld but is based in Big Bend, a town 60km north of Lavumisa. The company is investing more than US$5 million in the biofuel project, which is expected to generate 700 jobs in an area that has remained undeveloped since the country's independence in 1968.

USA Distilleries declined to comment on its new venture but more details are expected to be released after the environmental impact assessment has been completed.

"The ethanol made from cassava will be sold overseas, where there is a ready market," said Lutfo Dlamini, Minister of Enterprise and Employment, who announced the arrangement this week.

Cautious response

The proponents of prioritising food security over revenue from biofuel cite government's efforts in the 1990s to encourage small-scale farmers to form cooperatives to grow the "cash crop", sugar cane, rather than food. When sugar prices started falling three years ago the cooperatives went bankrupt. "If we had grown vegetables for the market we would be in business today," said Abner Dlamini, a member of a cooperative that was dissolved in 2005.

Florence Dube, a food aid worker in Manzini, the main commercial town, said, "There is a need for food today. Food prices are so high that this is an investment as worthy as ethanol. If the fields of Lavumisa can be irrigated to grow cassava, they can be irrigated to grow food for people."

''The quick answer is, 'to grow food for the people', but government's stance is that we need to develop industry and new markets so people can collect wages and buy food, because traditional agriculture is too undependable''

However, a source at the ministry of enterprises pointed out that "This company is a distillery and not a food processor. It can only do the business it does. Creating jobs at a place where there are absolutely none right now is one way of addressing the food crisis."

The ministry of agriculture also declined to comment on the project, but said it was pursuing irrigation schemes aimed at small-scale farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land, where 80 percent of the population lives.

Mfomfo Nkhambule, a member of parliament who has been critical of government attempts to cultivate sugar cane rather than staple foods, has raised his concerns in parliament, but few other politicians have commented on the food crisis.

"As long as the WFP [World Food Programme] and others are providing food, there seems a lack of urgency," a local newspaper columnist commented.

Skewed priorities

Agriculture extension officer Mthetfwa said the cassava ethanol project illustrated a similar skewing of priorities. "We cannot depend on food aid to come to us indefinitely ... from what I hear, the donors are wondering why we are not doing more for ourselves with the resources we have."

Treasure Maphanga, the director of the Esicojeni Foundation, a child hunger alleviation programme run by business and civil society, commented at a press briefing this week, "I am angry at the fact that, with all the human and natural resources, this country still depends on food handouts. We have an opportunity to correct the situation by the involvement of all people in the fight against the dependency syndrome."

At the beginning of 2007 the WFP projected that 220,000 people would be in need of assistance in Swaziland, but has since increased this figure to 365,000 beneficiaries receiving assistance from October 2007 until the next harvest in April 2008.