Sugarcane Bioethanol Project in Sierra Leone Underscores the Challenge of Producing Bioenergy in the Developing World

West Africa may be one of the most difficult and dangerous regions of the world in which to work, posing challenges that can prove deadly for project developers and their stakeholders. An ambitious bioenergy project in Sierra Leone highlights the sometimes-blurry line that separates development that is sustainable from that which is exploitative, as well as the numerous challenges faced when undertaking projects in poorly developed communities and countries.

As a Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) research team reports, a series of events — unexpected and anticipated — have taken their toll in terms of costs, revenues and the project development schedule of Addax Bioenergy Sierra Leone’s (ABSL) Makeni project.

As the SEI research team recounts in “Agricultural investment and rural transformation: a case study of the Makeni bioenergy project in Sierra Leone,” the Ebola outbreak in May 2014 took a terrible toll on the nation and the Makeni project, increasing costs, delaying development and driving it to the edge of viability.

Bioethanol And Sustainable Development In Africa

With a project value said to be on the order of 400-500 million euros, ABSL since 2008 has been working closely with local community chiefs and their constituents to build an integrated sugarcane farm and bioethanol production facility spanning some 10,000 hectares (~24,700 acres) in Makeni and eight other rural villages dependent on traditional subsistence farming.

In addition to Ebola, malaria, dengue and other tropical diseases, hurdles of a more periodic, foreseeable nature exist. For instance, ABSL scales down operations to a basic maintenance level every year during the rainy season, a five-to-six month period from June-November during which no revenues are earned.

Project developers have their work cut out for them when they introduce modern commercial agricultural and energy operations in communities that are largely illiterate, lack access to basic power, water and sanitation, and for whom the modern, “Industrial Age” concept of 9-5 workdays is foreign and entirely new, SEI senior research fellow and field research team co-leader Francis X. Johnson commented in an interview.

Making Sugarcane Bioethanol In Rural Sierra Leone

ABSL’s intention from project inception was to develop the Makeni sugarcane farm and bioethanol plant in a way that was genuinely sustainable. Touting its intention that Makeni serve “as a benchmark for sustainable investment in Africa, ABSL was able to obtain funding from six regional development banks, according to the report.

Construction of Makeni’s bioethanol distillery and 15-MWp power plant was completed in 2014. It´s expected to produce about 85,000 cubic meters of bio-ethanol – to be sold in Europe – and some 100,000 MWh of electricity per year when fully operational in 2017. The power that will be fed into the local utility grid is highly valued given the lack of grid power access, Johnson noted.

Bagasse, the leftover parts of the sugarcane plant, are fed into a biomass plant that powers ABSL’s irrigation system and refinery. As of March 2015 the Makeni project employed 3,600 people, most of whom were locals performing semi-skilled jobs.

In 2013 Makeni was the first project in Africa to be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. It also was the first such project in Africa to qualify for U.N. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon emissions reduction (CER) credits, he added.

Rather than cultivating sugarcane across one massive property, for example, ABSL’s cane fields are interspersed with those of smallholder subsistence farmers in nine villages.

Significantly, development banks required ABSL help local smallholder farmers cultivate traditional crops, rice being the local staple, Johnson highlighted.

An Uncertain Future

The outbreak of Ebola this past May imposed deep and lasting costs in Sierra Leone. Declaring “force majeure,” contractors evacuated the technical staff ABSL relied on.

Ebola has yet to be eradicated in Sierra Leone, as it has been in neighboring Liberia, Johnson pointed out. That has left ABSL and AOG, its Switzerland-based parent company, no choice but to scale operations down to a basic maintenance level.

Furthermore, ABSL and AOG are thoroughly reviewing all projected options for the future. That includes working with President Ernest Bai Koroma and his government to develop a strategy to keep the project going and help the struggling nation attract more foreign direct investment.

What will emerge from these high-level meetings is uncertain. For their part, the SEI team will continue to monitor the situation and provide additional research and analysis, the researchers stated. REW was unable to speak with a source at ABSL or AOG before publication.

 

All Images Credit: Addax Bioenergy Sierra Leone (ABSL)

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