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Published: 31 March 2014

Could agro-industries help answer Africa’s energy problem?

A major project spearheaded by Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) aims to investigate how agro-industries can help reduce energy poverty in Africa.

AGRICEN (agro-industries and clean energy in Africa) is a five-year research programme led by the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) in collaboration with a leading African energy think tank, AFREPREN/FWD (Kenya), Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, two independent research centres in the UK (The Policy Practice and Gamos Ltd), and various research associates in East and Southern Africa.

The project is funded by a £2 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Lack of access to energy remains one of the major barriers to development in sub-Saharan African countries. In rural areas, it is estimated that only 10 to 14 per cent of people have access to electricity, which has a knock-on effect not only on regional economic development but also on the health, education and social welfare of local communities.

However it is believed that agro-industries (such as sugar, tea, coffee and tobacco) could become part of the solution to this problem by generating electricity and other fuels from their waste – such as feedstock from sugar or tea processing – and harnessing other renewable energy resources. This energy could be used not only to power their own operations, but also to supply energy beyond their estate boundaries to surrounding local communities. Focusing on Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi, the AGRICEN project will investigate how agro-industry players can make an important contribution to widening rural energy access, and identify the barriers that prevent this from happening on a larger scale at present.

Leading the project at Surrey, Dr Yacob Mulugetta, a Reader in Energy Systems, Development and Climate, explains, “Many small-scale projects have failed to implement sustainable energy systems in rural African communities due to issues such as lack of finance and inadequacy of maintenance and technical skills – with disused solar panels or wind turbines a common sight.”

“However some agro-industries have the financial and technical capabilities to potentially provide energy successfully and at cost. Employing between 30 and 50 million people across Africa, agro-industries are significant contributors to the economy of many sub-Saharan African countries and in many cases already generate energy for their own purposes.”

In the initial stages of AGRICEN, research will be focused on exploring the extent to which agro-industries are already producing energy, and understanding how the political economy situation in each country is enabling or hindering this process. With many African countries setting renewable energy targets, and starting to implement measures such as feed-in tariffs, the project will also look at how these policies could help increase access to energy services.

“By the end of the project we aim not only to form a thorough understanding of the potential role of industries in energy services, but also to develop a strong methodology for project implementation and contribute to efforts to promote meaningful projects that meet the demands of potential investors,” says Dr Mulugetta.

The Surrey team draws on extensive experience to contribute to the AGRICEN project. Dr Mulugetta is a specialist in the relationship between clean energy services, development and human welfare, while Director of CES Professor Matthew Leach is one of the world’s leading authorities in the field of energy systems analysis and policy.