Denis Shebureh, part of the SEI survey team, uses an Impact Diagram with villagers in Sierra Leone.
Denis Shebureh, part of the SEI survey team, uses an Impact Diagram with villagers in Sierra Leone. Photo by Ival Cummings-John.

Bioenergy is widely seen as a promising avenue for low-carbon economic development in sub-Saharan Africa, where large shares of the population still live in rural areas. SEI work has highlighted the potential of sugarcane in particular, in countries with favourable conditions: not only can they produce ethanol for export, but they can also generate electricity from the bagasse and begin to develop a bio-based industry.

Yet bioenergy development has also raised many concerns, both about environmental impacts, and about the displacement of subsistence farmers to provide land for industrial-scale plantations.

Thus, as countries pursue these opportunities, it is crucial that they have good analytical tools to help them understand the implications of bioenergy projects and ensure they are designed to maximize benefits and minimize negative impacts. This is also a priority for donors and development banks backing the projects.

A major SEI project is studying the Makeni bioenergy project – the largest agricultural development project ever undertaken in Sierra Leone, at a cost of 267 million euros – to explore these issues and build analytical tools that could be applied to bioenergy projects in other countries as well.

The project is assessing the sustainability of the Makeni project from the perspective of rural transformation and low carbon pathways, focusing on the shift from subsistence farming to industrial agriculture in the Makeni region. The ultimate aim is to consider the linkages, conflicts and synergies that arise when economic development and renewable resource development processes unfold in tandem.

The work plan includes one component on the agro-industrial system in terms of energy balances and climate impacts for alternative sugarcane production schemes. A second component focuses on the local level in assessing the rural transformation and changes in livelihoods that are occurring. A third, cross-cutting component considers issues of energy and water access and availability at the local and regional levels.

“This project is quite unique because we will be able to observe the impact of large-scale biofuel investments on livelihoods within the communities nearby,” says Fielding. “We will also be able to understand the role of agro-industrial sugarcane in enabling low-carbon growth in low-income countries.”

Connecting with local communities

The project began early this year, and has now completed its first round of intensive fieldwork. In October, SEI researchers Francis X. Johnson, Nina Weitz, Jacqueline Senyagwa and Matthew Fielding, and intern James Kong-Win Chang, visited Sierra Leone to gather information and train a local survey team.

SEI has engaged a local project manager, Ival Cummings-John, and during the October visit, the SEI team and Cummings-John designed and implemented an eight-day capacity-building course with seven students and recent graduates from the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone. The course covered key data collection methods, including Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), household surveys and in Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPI).

Since then, the newly trained team has been conducting household surveys across the region; as of mid-December, 323 surveys had been completed. They will constitute the initial baseline for the analysis; the surveys will then be repeated at intervals of six months.

“These surveys will help us understand the impact of the investment on local livelihoods,” says Stacey Noel, director of the SEI Africa Centre. “By speaking with households, we hope to find out how living in close proximity to the Makeni complex affects poor farmers in the project area. Addax has also initiated a series of social improvement schemes, and we’ll use the surveys to gauge the extent of their benefits as well.”

The first survey data sheets will be delivered to SEI before the end of 2013, and then SEI researchers will begin analysing the data. The next survey will begin in April 2014.

The Addax project is located near the town of Makeni in the Bombali district, approximately 160 km from the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown. The region around the town of Makeni is the fastest-growing area of the country, and a major commercial, educational, logistical and economic centre due to its strategic location and the recent improvements in infrastructure along with the continuing development of nearby mining and agricultural areas.

The project includes a roughly 10,000-hectare sugarcane estate, establishment of an ethanol distillery that will produce roughly 85,000 cubic metres of ethanol per year, and the supply of 15 MW of sugarcane bagasse-based electricity to the national grid. The project has been financed with the support of eight European and African development finance institutions.

Read an earlier news story about this project »