Madagascar and bioethanol, sugar in the engine

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  • The presidential announcement during COP26 on the potential of bioethanol deserves a critical look and clearly, it is not the right plan for a country that is experiencing structural famine.

    The presidential announcement during COP26 on the potential of bioethanol deserves a critical look and clearly, it is not the right plan for a country that is experiencing structural famine.
    Credit: Presidency of Madagascar

    COP26 is a farandole of countries around the world to say that climate change is going to kill us all and that something must be done, starting next week. But considering that Russia and China, among the most industrialized and also the most polluting countries, did not come, then it’s like having a meeting to fight against lung cancer and not invite smokers. Thunderous announcements without any effect, it is the trademark of this convention which is above all a platform for the followers of punitive ecology to attack the whole world, especially the Westerners who seem to have made the crime of simply to come to the world.

    China and Russia have their own CO2 reduction targets, and they don’t want a rotten and routed West to teach them lessons. At the same time, when you force an injection to just drink a coffee, then it can be said that you have no more lessons to teach anyone. The Malagasy government, with President Rajoelina, was at this COP26 and he pleaded for his country, that’s normal. I had the unfortunate impression that Western leaders brandished Madagascar like some kind of mascot to reach an agreement with forceps without the Big Island deriving the slightest benefit.

    It is normal for Westerners to look soft at Madagascar, because they want to distract it from Chinese influence. And it seems that the current government is abandoning China and Asia, which is a big mistake. China has developed Madagascar more than any Western country. Sacrificing our partnership with Asia which is the future of humanity against the West which has become a gerontocracy and an open-air psychiatric asylum, shows that the Malagasy leaders have no vision of the geopolitics that is at stake and for that Westerners, Madagascar is only a pawn that can be sacrificed as they see fit.

    However, to fight deforestation, he called for a massification of the use of bioethanol and gas so that people stop using charcoal. On paper, bioethanol seems “green” energy, but without careful planning of its production and deployment, it can spell disaster for the country.

    Bioethanol is a liquid that is produced from sugar. And sugar that we will get from different agricultural crops. Basically, it was created for biofuel where it was mixed with gasoline up to 10%. The results show that the car emissions were less polluting and that the engine had a better life. Many countries use bioethanol as a fuel, but the share is around 11%, for example in France. But the president wants to use bioethanol for cooking to replace both coal and kerosene. Why is this a problem for Madagascar?

    As I said, bioethanol is produced from several agricultural crops. You can use rice, sorghum, cassava, but obviously, as you need sugar, the main seed used is sugar cane. In terms of production, Madagascar is at the bottom of the table with around 800,000 tonnes of sugar cane in 2018. The majority of this cane is used to produce sugar, but also rum.

    Sugar cane is the only means at our disposal to produce bioethanol. Because any other crops would put pressure on local agriculture. Roughly speaking, if we start to use rice or cassava to produce bioethanol, then it is all less resources to feed the population, therefore structural famine. But if we want to generalize bioethanol, then we must increase our production of sugar cane. This is very problematic, because together with cotton and rice, sugar cane is the crop that requires the most water in modern agriculture. In addition, it also takes a colossal amount of land to have a production worthy of the name.

    The reasons given for using bioethanol is that it emits little CO2 compared to petroleum and coal. We also avoid deforestation, which is clearly an advantage. The concern is that the agricultural production to have this bioethanol emits considerable quantities of CO2 which brings us back to the same point and this endangers our food chain. Other benefits include instant combustion and the ability to cook indoors. So, you no longer have to wait 45 minutes ventilating like a sick person to light a “fatapera”. Since bioethanol fumes are negligible, it can be used indoors in the same way as gas without too much problem. It is a flammable substance, which should be kept in closed bottles or containers. Not to mention that it can evaporate with the risk of accidental combustion.

    But the increase in the production of sugar cane will cause a mono-culture in a country which is already very fragile on food self-sufficiency. In addition, given the amount of water required, additional pressure is applied to areas that are not affected by drought. 1 liter of bioethanol has an energy efficiency of 34% compared to a liter of petroleum. 1 liter of bioethanol, in theory, can give between 2 to 4 hours of cooking. But given its low energy level, this means that a household will have to use 3 times more bioethanol to be as efficient as a liter of petroleum.

    However, the pressure on food self-sufficiency remains the big problem. We have not yet solved the drought problems in the country and we are still far from food self-sufficiency. Under these conditions, the spread of bioethanol in a country which is experiencing famine is like serving glasses of Whiskey to members of a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous! First, let’s solve the problem of food self-sufficiency and then we can tackle deforestation. And we can also have more technical and unforeseen problems. Bioethanol makes more money for agricultural producers than the food market. If the market grows, what is preventing rice farmers from switching to sugar cane for the sweet manna? The state can intervene, but it would be against the freedom of enterprise and the fact that the farmer is free to cultivate his land as he can. This implies strict state control with a form of socialism that can only fall apart.

    There is also the cost which is much higher. This involves the purchase of a bioethanol stove and the fuel itself. The price per liter of kerosene is 2130 ariary while bioethanol sells for around 3500 ariary. Are the poorest populations going to be asked to equip themselves with these devices with the risk of impoverishment that this implies? Because in the big Malagasy cities, the use of coal and oil has largely declined and a good part has switched to gas and electricity.

    You could argue that I’m looking for the little beast, but there’s a reason bioethanol hasn’t become the miracle fuel is that it poses the famous “fuel vs food” problem. Because if this market develops, then the sector will extend to biofuel and this will increase the pressure on food agriculture. You have countries that are champions of bioethanol such as Brazil, China or Pakistan. But Brazil is more than 700 million tonnes of sugar cane per year! It has gigantic agricultural areas and it has no water problem.

    For me, deforestation is a secondary problem compared to food and structural famine in the south. The president pleaded for funding of 100 million dollars for bioethanol, this means that the ambitions are high and I do not see any document or project detailing all the advantages and disadvantages of this new sector. The only entities, which promote bioethanol for cooking, are NGOs which are often Trojan horses for companies abroad in order to penetrate the local market by any means.

    In addition, when you see that the Fitia association, of the First Lady, is involved in the Ethanol sector, we tell ourselves that conflicts of interest and nepotism are not far away and there are people who will dig into this and we will have to demonstrate exemplary transparency. Ultimately, we can develop the gas industry to reduce the use of charcoal. This sector is already well established with suppliers and sellers in all corners. Of course, it is expensive without forgetting that we have to import the gas while the bioethanol can be done on site.

    We must be careful with ideas above ground when launching projects without an in-depth study, forgetting the main priorities of the population which is to eat their fill at the most affordable price. And you can’t do it with 120%. Because yes, on the staple goods market, we smashed the record for inflation with a 120% increase for certain brands of oil to 13,500 Ariary per liter, whereas it was 6000 Ariary in January 2021. The drop price is not effective and it is even the opposite. And I come back to this story of sugar cane and the risks of diverting the industry. Look at the price of a kilo of sugar and flour, they hardly have budged. Because it is produced locally and therefore inflation affects them less. So let’s continue on this path and try to achieve food self-sufficiency first and then we can tackle other priorities.

    In short, the food first and then the rest.

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