The Verge: Is ethanol starving Africa?

September 20, 2013

Amar Toor, September 19 – The biofuel industry has enjoyed tremendous growth over the past decade, sparked by the ongoing search for renewable energy sources and government incentives for private sector investment. But ethanol and other biofuels have come under increased criticism in recent years, with some questioning their long-term environmental benefits, and others linking them to far more urgent disasters: food shortages in the world's poorest countries.

ActionAid, a UK-based charity, lashed out at Addax Bioenergy earlier this month, accusing the Swiss company of engaging in a biofuels “land grab” that has diminished food supplies and harmed the livelihoods of locals in the Bombali region of Sierra Leone. Addax took out a 50-year lease on more than 50,000 hectares of land there in 2008, and has since set up a massive sugarcane plantation to produce ethanol for biofuels. The company plans to begin exporting ethanol to Europe by 2014, and aims to provide electricity for around 20 percent of Sierra Leone's national grid.

The Addax Bioenergy Project was the first Africa-based complex to earn certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, but according to ActionAid’s survey of more than 100 local villagers, the investment hasn’t made much of an impact on everyday life. The charity’s report, published on September 3rd, claims that Addax's sugarcane complex has decimated valuable farmland in Sierra Leone, decreasing food production in a region already ravaged by hunger. ActionAid also claims that Addax’s lease contracts were signed without the involvement of local communities, and that a program designed to train farmers on more advanced agricultural techniques has so far resulted in lower crop yields.