Potential of Bamboo for Sustainable Renewable Energy Production in West Africa

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Across many rural and peri-urban areas in West Africa, a large proportion of households rely on charcoal or fuel wood as the main source of energy, especially for cooking. Over the years, the extraction of wood for charcoal production has been identified as a significant driver of forest degradation and deforestation within the region. With increasing population growth, the demand for charcoal or fuel wood is expected to increase with serious consequences for the region’s fast depleting forest resources, which provide critical ecosystem services. Again, the rapid depletion of forests will undoubtedly affect the sub-region’s carbon emission reduction efforts and climate change mitigation capacities.

The Potential of Bamboo as Energy Source

Bamboo processing. Freshly harvested sections of bamboo shoots in the pot ready to be steamed, before being fermented and dried, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Hannah Brodie-Hall/CIFOR

Bamboo biomass can be processed through thermal or biochemical conversion to produce different energy products, including charcoal, pellets, and briquettes, which can serve as substitutions for wood fuel products. As an alternative source of energy, it has been used extensively in countries such as China, India and Brazil. Empirical evidence show that the thermal calorific value of bamboo charcoal (approximately 4500 kcal kg-1) is comparable to commonly used biomass resources such as acacia and teak. In addition, a comparative life cycle assessment of producing charcoal from bamboo, acacia and teak suggest that charcoal production from bamboo is a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective option. Bamboo pellets are considered reliable biomass energy sources in certain parts of the world. In terms of mass and energy density, pellets from bamboo have characteristics superior to other biomass products, such as woodchips and briquettes.  Such higher density allows for easy and cost-effective transportation and greater efficiency in energy generation with suitable properties for residential and industrial use. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, pellet production around the world grew from 7 to 19 million tons from 2006 to 2012 signifying the growing demand for pellets and its recognition as a clean energy source.

Several bamboo species exist in the West Africa sub-region; however, the most prevailing species is Bambusa vulgaris with high growth rate and biomass production. This make the b. vulgaris a potential resource for the production of bamboo energy products. With a projected rise in the consumption of wood fuels and charcoal by 2030, the prospects for bamboo-based energy products are expected to rise in terms of economic and environmental returns.

Regional Bamboo Bioenergy Workshop

A moment during the regional workshop organized by INBAR in Accra, Ghana.

The International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR), in partnership with the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), convened a regional workshop on “Using Bamboo for Sustainable Renewable Energy Production in West Africa” at the Royal Beulah Hotel in Accra, Ghana on 27 November 2019. The workshop provided a platform for research scientists, policy makers, entrepreneurs, policy experts, natural resource managers, and renewable energy experts from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo to deliberate on the potential of bamboo as a critical resource for producing clean energy to drive economic growth, rural livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

Participants also had the opportunity to deliberate on ways of scaling up the establishment of bamboo plantations to provide sustainable biomass for the production of renewable energy in African countries as well as address deforestation, degradation and carbon emissions challenges, which directly contributes to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals 7, 13 and 15.

Presenting an overview of the workshop, Ernest Nti Acheampong, the programme manager of the Inter Africa Bamboo Smallholder Livelihood Development Programme at INBAR WARO noted that in spite of the abundance of bamboo resources in many African countries and the desire of to shift to alternative sources of energy that are more environmentally friendly, African countries are limited by appropriate policies on alternative energy and the lack of technology that can support the production of affordable clean energy. He reiterated that the participatory nature of the workshop was designed to encourage networking, knowledge sharing and collaborative partnership among institutions for the strategic development of bamboo for renewable energy production at both domestic and commercial levels.

To set the tone for deliberations around the potential of bamboo biomass for sustainable bioenergy production, a total of six presentations were made by resource experts under the thematic areas: bamboo for domestic commercial energy production, bamboo for landscape restoration and degraded landscape, and bamboo for carbon mitigation highlighted the socio-economic and environmental implications of harnessing the potential of bamboo as a priority resource.

At the end of the workshop, it was observed that:

  • Bamboo presents opportunities for socio-economic development and environmental benefits in African countries by playing a vital role in substituting wood fuel which contributes to forest degradation;
  • A national strategy and action plan is needed to support the sustainable development of the bamboo value chain in African countries. It is also critical to recognize and include bamboo as a sustainable natural material in national renewable energy development plans;
  • Modern technologies for the production of bamboo based energy products offer a pathway towards energy dependency in African countries especially in a period where wooded forests are being depleted at an alarming rate. Strong policies and incentives are needed to guide bamboo development and encourage the production of affordable energy from bamboo;
  • Further research is required on the cost-benefit analysis of different technologies so as to improve the efficiency of traditional biomass use;
  • Governments need to support and promote private-public partnerships for the development of the renewable sub-sector. This means for example, investment and financial support for small and medium scale business enterprises in bamboo charcoal pellets, briquette production;
  • To expand bamboo based commercial energy production requires addressing complex issues such as streamlining current land tenure systems and rights, land use planning, and mobilizing stakeholders for the establishment of largescale bamboo plantations. Also essential is the use of highly desirable bamboo species for energy production.

With a stronger commitment to improve both rural and urban energy needs, African countries could be in a better position address it perennial energy crisis through the use of bamboo biomass as an alternative source of energy. Upscaling the development and use of energy from bamboo biomass could provide a viable market for the use of bamboo waste materials and other supplementary waste materials that are currently not being put into good use.

The economics of bamboo for commercial energy production require a thorough assessment of the cost, margins and the need for huge biomass stock. With charcoal production expected to be the main source of energy for rural communities, bamboo charcoal and briquettes have a good potential to contribute to the energy demands as well as the rural economy. Bamboo pellets production for industrial combustion is still in its infant stage due to the limited technologies and biomass stock; however, there is high potential for a shift in the demand for bamboo pellets due to the rising cost of electricity for industries in many African countries.

The workshop was deemed relevant by participants and expressed the need for further engagements and research on bamboo for bioenergy, plantation establishment and formulation and implementation of policies. Constructive remarks and comments from the workshop will feed into policy recommendations to be shared with government agencies and other related institutions working on bamboo and energy. Further engagements with key actors will continue in order to facilitate the development of innovation systems and favorable policy environments that will drive the bamboo bioenergy agenda in Africa.

By Daniel Kweitsu Obloni, INBAR.

This article was produced by INBAR and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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