As fuel prices climb in Malawi, amid fuel shortages and a soaring inflation rate - prompted by a 50 percent devaluation of the currency - a new paper suggests a way to decrease the country's reliance on imported fuel: biofuels.
Malawi is “the only African country that has consistently used liquid biofuels for transport for an extended period - since 1982”, points out the paper, which was jointly authored by economist Charles Jumbe, of the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development in Malawi, and Francis Johnson, a senior researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Fuel shortages and rising prices recently led to protests in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. Malawi spends US$33 million a month importing fuel, according to a December 2012 report in Engineering News, which said the government had approved the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel for motor vehicles.
Ethanol and vegetable oil
Motorists in Malawi already use a blend of the conventional fossil fuel and ethanol produced from molasses - the by-product of producing sugar from sugarcane. The strategy was adopted in the 1980s to save foreign exchange.
The country launched a five -year project to consider the option of running vehicles exclusively on ethanol in 2007.
But Malawi has not been producing sufficient quantities of ethanol.
The amount of ethanol being produced has dropped over the years, as it relies on a poor-quality molasses that is produced seasonally, Jumbe explained via email. The ethanol production plants are currently operating at half their capacity. This has affected the amount of ethanol being blended with the fossil fuel, forcing a greater dependency on the imported fuel.
If the production of sugar is expanded, ethanol production could ease some of the country's foreign exchange burden, he said.
"The high commercial value of sugar and ethanol has brought considerable socioeconomic benefits to both small farmers and estate workers [in Malawi]," notes the paper.
"Blending of straight vegetable oil (SVO) with diesel and with paraffin is now also under way in Malawi," it says.
The vegetable oil is locally produced by some 25,000 small farmers from the Jatropha curcas plant, which is grown in hedgerows around their farms.
But agriculture in Malawi is in trouble, affected by increasing variability in rains and temperatures.
The paper looks not only at Malawi's energy needs but also at the transitions taking place in its energy consumption, which is endangering the country's forests.
Forest cover is depleting at a rapid rate, as firewood and charcoal made from wood account for 88 percent of total energy and 98 percent of household energy use. In the 1960s, more than half of Malawi’s land area was covered by forest, the paper says. The number has dropped to 34 percent, according to a 2010 UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate.
Jumbe and Johnson note that while rapid urbanization seems to have weaned a substantial number of Malawians off firewood, it has pushed them towards charcoal use, as electricity remains expensive and out-of bounds for most people.
"Not all households are near the electricity grid system," said Jumbe. "Even where electricity is near households, the cost of electricity connection is very high. As such, even those with electricity in urban areas rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking. Most households use electricity mainly for lighting. The number of bicycles that trek to urban cities with bags of charcoal in the big cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe is testimony to this!"
Malawi must consider making electricity accessible and cheaper for its people as a priority, he added.