Food vs Fuel; What should Nigeria Grow their Crops For

It’s no news that power supply is erratic in Nigeria and might remain so for a very long time, in spite of generation of additional power and transmission to the grid. Prima facie, this has resulted in the dearth of factories and industries or extinguished any intention to start one. In the face of challenges like these, other alternative sources are sought for.

Katsina State Government between 1999 and 2003 started the building of a $4 million windmill power project to generate 10MW of electricity (still uncompleted for 10 years now despite the takeover of the project by the Federal Government). Kano State Government is also building  two independent hydropower dams to produce 13.7MW. And recently in November 2017, Kebbi State Government (KBSG) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission (NNPC) to produce 84 million litres of ethanol per annum  (a biofuel) from sugarcane and cassava. Ethanol is produced from fermenting food products like corn, sugarcane and cassava.

My knee-jerk reaction to this development wasn’t about how much energy we can get from the revenue but the holistic socio-economic impact of such a project that chooses to grow sugar for fuel production when Nigeria relies on importing 99% of its sugar needs. That is just a tip of the iceberg of the considerations that made me unsettled.

Nigeria’s population is rising rapidly. There is a huge poverty epidemic, especially in the northern part of Nigeria (where Kebbi State is located) which is severely affected by desertification. More people need to grow food to feed the starving and malnourished population on the vast available arable land facing threats of land degradation and desertification.

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The World Health Organizations puts it that a child in remote north western region in Nigeria where stunting rate is 55% is more likely to experience malnutrition than a child in the southern part of Nigeria. This unarguably puts a desperate need to ensure production of food for consumption in the north-west region and country not self-sufficient in producing most of its food needs.

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In the face of a National Sugar Masterplan (NSMP) that aims to reduce sugar importation and these chronic food problems that defines sustainable development goal 2 ‘Zero Hunger’, KBSG is on the move to launch a project to start producing ethanol from sugar and cassava plantations in the state.

What’s the cost-benefit analysis of growing more food for fuel instead of for consumption in a food insecure and malnourished country? What are the social, economic and environment impacts? Does this action spell the needed progress for the people, state and region? The debate is not just about food vs fuel, but a holistic view of other impacts on natural resources such land use, air, water, soil, biodiversity, climate change and social issues like jobs, wages, working conditions and the environmental sustainability.

Kebbi is however not the first place with the intention of starting a biofuel or more appropriately, ethanol production. One may soon emerge in Ota, Ogun State expected to produce 44 million litres per annum.

Outside the country, Brazil, with similar socio-economic conditions is one of the top 3 producers and consumers of ethanol, together with the US and the EU.

Important to mention are the merits of biofuels. Especially for Nigeria’s case is reduction of oil dependency which is enshrined the NSMP vision 2020. Perhaps this regional innovation by KBSG is a step in the right direction for energy needs. Although hugely debatable, the standard of living of the workers of this sugarcane producing ethanol plantations may increase, overtime and for a long time. State revenue, businesses may emerge to use the new energy, assuming it will be made available to them.


In Brazil, ethanol farm workers have wages better than 50% of service workers and 40% industry workers, but second to those in soybean farming. On a general scale, the average income of those workers was higher than the income of 50% of all Brazilian families. To add to the merit, the investment needed for job creation in the sugarcane sector is much lower than in other industry sectors such as chemical production, automotive industry, metallurgy, consumer goods and capital goods in Brazil.

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All these merits point in the right direction for Brazil, thanks to their Brazilian Alcohol Program (Proalcool) in 1975 to reduce their oil imports. Hence, motivation and a ready market played a huge part in the success of ethanol consumption and it has significantly impacted the country’s dependency on oil consumption for their automotive industry.

Other indirect land use changes are related to GHG emissions and climate change. Some studies depict that about 70-100% of GHG savings from sugarcane produced for ethanol can be achieved, although debatable, according to a World Bank Study of 2012.

For Nigeria, or Kebbi State in particular, all these merits have other implications and are thus questionable as to whether they can only be easily achieved through growing sugarcane and cassava for ethanol. There should be huge concerns for local food prices within the region, land prices and ownership, working conditions, biodiversity, soil, air and water pollution.

In just 5 years, prices of land more than doubled in the city of Sao Paulo in Brazil where sugarcane plantations were expanding. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in 2007 that food prices rose by 40% in 12 months affecting major biofuel feedstocks such sugarcane, palm oil and corn. This was witnessed in countries with vast palm oil plantations such as Malaysia where prices of cooking oil sold on the street rose by 70% thus causing a huge scarcity of the product. In 2008, the New York Times reported a similar case of shortage witnessed in Indonesia too, where rainforests were cleared for palm oil plantations.

In 2007, Tanzanian rice and maize farmers lost ownership of their lands to large companies growing Jatropha and sugarcane. However, the case is not the same in Brazil where expansion of sugarcane farms didn’t affect other crops expansion. Most of the replaced lands were previously pastured lands. The case of Kebbi Sate will be an interesting one as indigenes of Koko Besse and Kalgo (target locations of the ethanol plants) are heavily involved in sugarcane production, rice farming and also pasturing.

The north western state is hugely contributing to the net country production of rice (widely touted as successful) and meat, amidst emerging anti-grazing bills, a clear action strategy and steps of how the farms for sugarcane plantation should be provided in the best interest of achieving the nation’s food security and social justice of local farmers.

The protection of local farmers and farms need to be discussed early on to prevent a hike in prices of other food items including prices of land in the poverty stricken state.

Proper environmental safeguards, sustainable land management, environment friendly ethanol factories with high efficiency and water recycling capability must be put in place. A typical case of farmers’ exploitation may emerge. Therefore, in order to ensure the protection of rights and privileges of the farmers to be employed by this project, strong workers cooperatives like PENGASSAN may need to emerge.

Bold regional projects like this are laudable only if they make productive, economic, social and environmental sense to the teeming population and the economy.

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Blog written by:

Behrendt & Rausch Fotografie

Sadiq Abubakar Gulma steers the organizational mission of GHI as the Chief Director. He is a member of the Green Talents International Forum for High Potentials in Sustainable Development, a LEED accredited professional and has a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering. Follow him on Twitter @SadiqGulma


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