Many African nations are faced with simultaneous development imperatives to achieve a high-growth, low-carbon economy, while increasing access to modern energy services. Expansion of the biofuels industry across the continent, particularly in regions outside of North Africa, could potentially serve as a solution, albeit a partial one, to support these imperatives. When produced in localized or regionalized supply chains, biofuels—which are made from plants and other biological materials—can serve as a clean energy source to meet two fundamental needs of developing economies in African regions: transportation and—perhaps less intuitively—cooking. However, ensuring the availability of crops for food security is a prerequisite for expanding the biofuels industry.
Further expanding this nascent industry will require chipping away at a web of challenges facing continent-wide biofuels production and biorefining, including first ensuring crops for food security are not diverted to biofuel manufacturing. To build out the potential of the biofuels industry in Africa, it is imperative that agricultural practices modernize, and adequate infrastructure be developed to enable the storage, transport, and conversion of feedstocks and fuels.
To realize this vision, the value chain for biofuel products will require substantial support from private and public sources of investment, regulators, and local market participants. Across the continent, establishing a biofuels industry will require coordinated efforts to build a supply of feedstocks and to develop adequate market-driven mechanisms for the collection and transport of feedstock to processing or refining facilities. Expanding the industry will also require feedstock-calibrated refining capabilities and distribution systems to transport biofuels to end users. Progressing to this end state will hinge on the presence of public-private partnerships to match suppliers with demand sources, technology-sharing initiatives between African nations and other economies with large biofuel industries, and targeted efforts to de-risk investment in pioneering projects and facilities through the use of concessional finance or innovative blended-finance structures, paired with technical assistance.
While full-scale deployment of biofuels may require the synchronization of several intermediate steps, the benefits are clear. Developing the biofuels industry in African countries can partially incentivize much-needed agricultural modernization across the continent, produce valuable low-carbon fuels to meet growing domestic and worldwide demand, and promote access to clean cooking, provided that food security is addressed as a prerequisite—although such efforts may be mutually reinforcing.
Maia Sparkman is an assistant director with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center (GEC), where she focuses on energy and climate policy. She supports the GEC’s research on energy access and energy system transformation in Africa; city-level climate action; and industrial decarbonization.
Prior to joining the Council, Sparkman served in the Peace Corps as a sustainable agriculture specialist in Zambia, where she worked closely with small-holder farmers and liaised with Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture and the US Forest Service to promote climate-smart agriculture practices and diversify household nutrition.
William Tobin is a program assistant at the GEC, where he focuses on energy and climate policy. William’s research efforts center on energy transitions in emerging markets; clean energy supply chains and critical materials; the future of oil and gas; and emerging technologies such as clean hydrogen and advanced batteries.
Tobin served previously for the US Department of State at a Regional Environment, Science & Technology, and Health Office; and for two members of the US House of Representatives. He is a graduate of the University of Florida, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in biology.
Maxwell Zandi is a former young global professional at the GEC. His research interests include the geopolitical dimensions of energy policy and the water-energy-food nexus. Prior to his time at the Atlantic Council, Zandi interned at the Wilson Center and Green Powered Technology.
Zandi holds a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University with a concentration in international security and US foreign policy. He also has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Villanova University.
The Global Energy Center develops and promotes pragmatic and nonpartisan policy solutions designed to advance global energy security, enhance economic opportunity, and accelerate pathways to net-zero emissions.