Impacts of biofuel production in southern Africa

Authors Johnson, F.X.; Nyambane, A.; vonMaltitz, G.; Luhanga, D.; Jarzebski, M.; Balde, B.Siddighi; Gasparatos, A.
Year of Publication 2018
Type of Publication Policy and Practice Brief



Adopting an ecosystem services lens in assessing the local impacts of biofuel crop production offers valuable insights. For example, unravelling the effects of land use change on ecosystem services improves our understanding of the local impacts of biofuel crop production on poverty alleviation and food security. This knowledge can be used to identify best practices and support decision-making and policy design in the production of biofuel crops. 

Biofuel crop production causes changes in land use, and by extension affects the provision of various ecosystem services. Crop type, scale of production and the original land use are key factors in determining whether changes in ecosystem services are negative or positive over a given timeframe.  For example, the conversion of agricultural land and partly degraded woodland to large sugarcane plantations in Malawi and Swaziland has had carbon sequestration benefits through carbon stock gains. Similar effects are observed in areas of Malawi where jatropha was promoted as a hedge crop in small family farms. On the contrary, the conversion of savanna woodland for a large jatropha plantation in Mozambique has caused substantial decline in carbon stocks.

Sugarcane is a mature industrial crop with a long history in southern Africa. Its production can contribute positively to local poverty alleviation and food security. This was observed in both plantation and smallholder settings in Malawi and Swaziland. While the actual effects vary between the various groups involved in sugarcane production, these groups tend to be better off compared to groups not involved in sugarcane production.

Jatropha is a relatively new and unproven crop in southern Africa and hence its poverty reduction benefits also remain unproven. While workers in jatropha plantations could experience some economic benefits (with positive ripple effects on poverty alleviation and food security), these benefits are somewhat precarious considering the almost total collapse of the jatropha sector in southern Africa. On the other hand, considering the low achieved yields, jatropha cultivation in smallholder settings in Malawi does not seem to offer any significant poverty alleviation and food security benefits to adopting farmers.