Frequently in the renewable energy resources discourse here in Africa, geothermal, solar, wind and hydro tend to catch the attention of many stakeholders in the energy sector. This is oblivious of other renewable sources that could potentially export electricity to the grid, such as sugar cane bagasse. Just like the afore mentioned resources which are increasingly receiving more budgetary and regulatory/policy support, sugar cane bagasse is another viable option that could help reduce the reliance of African countries on petroleum products and diversify their energy base; allow for the modernization and rehabilitation of their sugar industries thereby improving their viability; save on foreign exchange through reduction in imports of fossil fuel; and contribute in the mitigation of the enhanced greenhouse effect by displacing fossil fuel dependence.
Cogeneration from sugar cane bagasse in Africa is especially beneficial in (small island) states devoid of fossil fuel reserves such as Mauritius and Réunion. The potential for replication in almost all the cane sugar producing countries on the African continent is high since a majority of them are endowed with agro-climatic conditions conducive to sugar cane production. The sugar cane crop is known to have a high bioconversion efficiency of capturing sunlight resulting in a high amount of atmospheric carbon being fixed into biomass. While until recently the main interest in sugar cane was only to recover sugar from this biomass, successful experiences in cogeneration in countries such as Mauritius and concerns about global warming means it is now considered a major renewable energy resource in cane sugar-producing countries.
However, to ensure that these potentially positive gains can be achieved, a number of factors in the ongoing power sector reforms will need to be addressed to secure the eventual success of bagasse energy development. A clear policy on bagasse use for electricity will need to be defined by the government and agreed upon by all stakeholders. Coupled with proper investment and management of resources, high yields are potentially obtainable. The technology is environment friendly and can attract funds from international agencies such as the GEF, the Prototype Carbon Fund and activities implemented jointly under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.
While providing incentives to entrepreneurs as independent power producers (IPPs) is a major motivating factor to scale-up bagasse energy development, the interests of the small cane growers and the workers should absolutely not be ignored. Proper legislation and the creation of bodies such as Sugar Investment Trusts are critical to ensure that this vulnerable group in the sugar industry shares in the profits. The equitable revenue sharing policies that are in place in Mauritius provide a model for imitation in ongoing (and planned) modern biomass energy projects in Africa.
The present situation of the sugar industry in many African countries is that domestically, the cost of production is increasing while on the international scene, sugar prices are decreasing. This has led to among other challenges the continuing illegal imports of the cheap commodity in many countries. These and other deep-rooted challenges will potentially impact negatively on the industry if measures are not taken to mitigate their effects. As such, sugar milling factory modernization, centralization and exploitation of the by-products for more value added products are measures that will ensure the long-term viability of the industry. Energy from bagasse is one option that can be given top priority in this context.