We have recently seen debates on a proposed large-scale foreign investment for “jatropha” biodiesel crop in the Tana Delta area.
The debate is an indication that we need national policies to guide biofuel development and also large-scale leasing of community lands by foreign enterprises.
The debate on large-scale commercial jatropha farming in the Coast or elsewhere in Kenya for exports has more to do with policies on environment, community land leasing by foreign investors, and national food security.
It has less to do with energy policies as offshore biodiesel exports do not affect Kenya energy supply and demand balance.
Not so positive experiences from Tanzania on leasing of large tracts of community land for biofuel crops development may need to be analysed to advise Kenya on potential adverse social, environmental and economic effects.
Recent political upsets in Madagascar which were said to be partly influenced by large-scale leasing of community lands to foreign firms can also inform future Kenya policies.
Over the last few years, many countries have been reassessing their strategies on biofuels especially where biofuels developments are in direct competition with national food self sufficiency and where they interfere with existing primary forests.
The uncertainty on future global protocols on climate change, as the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, may also result in reduced enthusiasm on biofuels trade unless similar protocols are promulgated.
The Ministry of Energy has developed a yet to be published draft policy and strategy for biofuels.
There are two different types of biofuels, the biodiesel usually blended with petroleum diesel and bioethanol or power alcohol blended with gasoline.
The Kenya draft policy focuses mainly on biodiesel.
The bioethanol industry in Kenya received a regulatory boost last year when a 10 per cent blend of alcohol in gasoline was gazetted mainly for Western Kenya distribution.
Although alcohol blending with gasoline has yet to start being used in the market, we have seen indications of planned investments in power alcohol by a number of sugar firms in Kenya.
The sugar based bioethanol development is justified purely on its green and commercial economics.
It is common for the sugar industry across the world to integrate sugar, power alcohol and electricity cogeneration as a complimentary economic model for sugar sector development.
Potential carbon credits from the green energy (alcohol and co-generated electricity) under the CDM or any other future protocol will create extra cash flows for the sugar industry investors.
It is the biodiesel development that is starting to elicit debate here in Kenya.
Policy justification for biodiesel is to reduce use of biomass energy (charcoal and firewood) and conserve our national forest cover, while at the same time creating socioeconomic activities for the semi arid rural communities.
The draft policy and strategy for biodiesel in Kenya centers mainly around rural communities primarily in semi-arid areas, where locally grown diesel crops (jatropha, croton, castor etc) would provide affordable and cleaner alternative rural energy for lighting and heating using locally customised equipment.
The strategy also envisages surplus production of biodiesel being marketed through co-operative type of channels, and if sufficient critical mass is achieved, opportunities will be made for blending with petroleum based diesel.
However, a key caveat in the biodiesel strategy is that the diesel crops would not compete with food crops for land and water resources and this is the reason why only the semi-arid areas which are marginal in food production are targeted.
Understandably, the draft policy does not sufficiently address large-scale commercial diesel crop farming for exports.
Over the last few years, a number of scenarios have emerged in the world and also here in Kenya, and these may influence the direction of the draft biodiesel policy and strategy.
The key among them are the new experiences garnered on the target jatropha crop.
It is now reported that the jatropha plant, which has been the pillar of the biodiesel strategy, does not yield sufficiently in marginal semi arid areas as previously believed and that it requires water and fertiliser supplementation to give economic yields. Research is required here in Kenya to confirm assertions.
Secondly, there is increased urgency with national food security after the country experienced three successive serious droughts (2005/06, 2008/09, 2011) which appear to confirm permanent global warming effects on Kenya.
Many parts of our hitherto arable lands are now changing to semi-arid.
Areas previously defined as semi-arid are gradually becoming arid as desert encroachment becomes more of a reality.
Further, the recurrent droughts have prompted the government to put emphasis and budgetary commitments on irrigation and promotion of more drought resistant food crops for semi-arid areas.
We have also seen East African Breweries Limited promoting sorghum crop development in the Ukambani counties which are generally classified as semi-arid.
With this renewed focus on food crops in marginal areas, it is highly unlikely that the government will wish to emphasise promotion of biodiesel crops like jatropha in the same areas.
The government is likely to argue that intensified rural electrification and other customised solar gadgets will significantly sort our semi-arid areas energy needs especially for lighting.
The Ministry of Energy together with other relevant ministries need to reassess the biodiesel crops strategy to reflect these new developments.
Many farmers were encouraged to plant jatropha a few years ago and today they are waiting for guidance on what to do.