Re-thinking bioenergy: value chains that put farmers first

Kristi Foster

"Biofuels have the potential to address all 3 sustainability pillars – social, economic and environmental. The trick is how to execute this and it requires a change of frame and change of lens." So said Navin Sharma of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at a side event "The IFAD-ICRAF Biofuel Program," held alongside the Bonn Climate Talks.

Biofuels – renewable fuels derived from biomass – will need to provide 26% of total transport fuel by 2050 if we are to restrict global temperature to non-devastating levels. Yet the so-called food-versus-fuel debate argues that the use of food crops as feedstock can compete with food production, drive land conversion and contribute to rising food prices that cut into the limited purchasing power of the poor.

But Sharma wants to change the way we view biofuels, by developing non-food and multifunctional biofuel crops, by using smart agroforestry systems and by addressing the food and energy needs of small farmers, as part of ICRAF's newly launched Programme for the Development of Alternative Biofuel Crops. The recent side event brought together potential partners from research, government and business and presented remarkable examples of successful biofuel programs in India, Brazil and Mozambique.

India's Biofuel Park program, which to date has trained roughly 106,500 farmers (40% women), yields diverse benefits to farmers, including improved soil productivity, protection from insects and pests and new sources of energy and income from oil-bearing seeds. "It is nothing new or novel - we only rewired the past," said Balakrishna Gowda, Professor and Coordinator of the program, which encourages farmers to plant trees along borders, in backyards and on community lands.

The program's market network – built on a proven model for milk distribution in the state – provides links to user industries, assures price and purchase of biodiesel and yields maximum benefits to the farming community. The major by-product, de-oiled cake, is partially converted to animal feed, used to produce biogas for farmers' kitchens, and ultimately goes back to the land as manure, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

According to Gowda, a village with 100 households and 2000 trees can produce about 30 tonnes of seeds annually by the 10th year - enough to meet the electricity requirement of the village for 300 days in a year, supply water for the village, and support school and primary health care.

In Brazil, the National Program for Production and Use of Biodiesel (PNPB) has rapidly increased biodiesel production since the program's inception in 2005. Manoel Souza, Director-General of Embrapa Agroenergy, part of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, credits this rapid production success to having a huge technology package, production scale and distribution logistics in place for soybean.

Yet biodiesel is only the fourth most important product coming out of the soybean chain, behind grain, cake used for animal feed and oil used in the food industry. "With the biodiesel program, [we] created a market, [we] strengthened the chain of soybean production and [we] still keep as a priority the production of food," said Souza.

Brazil invests roughly 12 billion dollars each year to support and promote the inclusion of family agriculture and uses social stamps to encourage industries to buy biodiesel from family agriculture. To date over 100,000 families have seen their income doubled through the biodiesel program.

Brazil has more than quadrupled its agricultural productivity over the last 40 years, with only a 20% increase of land, yet at 2.7 billion litres per year it's at only 40% of its biodiesel production capacity. Embrapa is now planning to use the residues of agricultural production chains to increase efficiency, as well as to develop alternative feedstocks for the North and Northeast regions, where soybean is not produced and poverty rates are higher.

In Mozambique, CleanStar Ventures has developed a small-scale program focused on increasing food and energy security through smallholder-based agroforestry. "We wanted to build a commercial venture that could be profitable in the long term, even be environmentally restorative in the long term and help meet these needs for food and energy," said Sagun Saxena, Managing Partner of the company.

Their business plan spans at least three steps in the value chain, all the way from primary agricultural production and processing of cassava, through marketing and distribution to supply the urban population with an ethanol-based cooking solution as an alternative to charcoal. Simple agroforestry techniques improve soil productivity, diversify income sources and reduce farmer's vulnerability to climate change through a diversity of crops.

"...we can help play that last gap [between agricultural research centres and farmers] and that really provides a set of benefits that currently farmers are struggling to see," said Saxena.

Despite the variation in scale, all three biofuel systems share the themes of vertical integration, a focus on agricultural sustainability and an emphasis on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. As Ravi Prabhu, Director-General – Research at ICRAF puts it: "Biofuels are a by-product. Livelihoods are the main product."

Watch the presentations:

Agroforestry approach to sustainability in biofuel value chain - Balakrishna Gowda

The Brazilian National Program for Production and Use of Biodiesel (PNPB) - Manoel Souza

Commercial ventures for increasing food and energy security through smallholder-based agroforestry, bioprocessing and retailing of sustainable food and energy products - Sagun Saxena


The Programme for the Development of Alternative Biofuel Crops was conceptualized and funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), with additional funding from the Government of India. It will be implemented by ICRAF in India and later expanded to other areas in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, developing country- and region-specific strategies through strong partnerships.

"The IFAD-ICRAF Biofuel Programme" side event was held on June 5, 2013, alongside the thirty-eighth session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 38) in Bonn, Germany.

Biofuel Park (India)

Embrapa Agroenergy (Brazil)

CleanStar Mozambique

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

The Government of India

Related Reading:

Bioenergy gathers pace

Biofuels venture connects cities to farms in Mozambique