Last week this column dwelt on the need to dig up Kitui coal and use it to fire “heavy” industries like cement, steel, and minerals processing which are currently using imported fuel oil and coal. I also listed wood and agricultural waste as a potential indigenous source of heating energy for mainly the “lighter” industries like sugar and tea processing, breweries and cooking oil factories all of which use imported fuel oil.
By coincidence, last week East African Breweries Limited (EABL) announced a budget to fund capacity for biomass energy (wood and agricultural waste) for process heat in their breweries in Kenya and Uganda. For the company, wood will definitely be cheaper compared with imported fuel oil. Besides, it will reduce energy imports bill, while creating a new value chain of local enterprises (and jobs) associated with wood farming.
EABL recently pioneered the sorghum farming value chain mainly in the Lake counties to supply their keg beer product line at their Kisumu brewery. If there was an award for the best practice in the integration of farming into industrialisation, then EABL stands out as a worthy example.
Commercial wood farming is a major un-tapped economic opportunity that has previously been dwarfed by environmental debates about illegal logging and charcoal burning; forest cover and carbon sink; hydrology and water towers conservation. These are critical national environmental obligations that as a country we should address by protecting, restoring and expanding public forests and encouraging agro-forestry to meet and exceed the 10 percent forest cover target.
Commercial wood farming should essentially be on private and community land in marginal semi-arid areas to avoid competition with food production and security. It should be an economic activity that does not in any way touch public forests. Commercial wood farming is a private and incremental effort with environmental pluses in that it provides additional forest cover and carbon sink.
When used for energy by industries, wood has a lower carbon footprint than imported fuel oil. The fuel oil supply chain logistics — crude oil production, transportation and refining, shipment and transportation of fuel oil to the factory — and eventual burning in the factory have a definitely much higher carbon footprint when compared with locally grown wood. Further, when sustainably grown, harvested and replaced, wood-for-energy qualifies as a renewable energy source.
Wood farming has been done before when Kenyans embarked on growing commercial eucalyptus trees to feed a high demand for electricity distribution poles, a business model that is gradually under stiff competition from concrete poles. If EABL engages and expands the existing eucalyptus farms, it will be a logical starting point for their biomass energy programme. There are also ongoing investments in bamboo farming across Kenya, and this can easily integrate into biomass energy.
For programme success, EABL or any other promoter of wood farming for industrial energy should enter into producer contracts with growers to guarantee wood off-takes and price stability through a wood pricing formula preferably pegged to global fuel oil price escalators since fuel oil is the alternative energy source. Guaranteed markets and price predictability are important for farmer’s motivation.
Wood farming is an economic opportunity that should be designated as a formal economic sector with its own performance monitoring metrics. Its value chain cuts across numerous ministries and departments (environment, industrialisation, energy, agriculture and forestry) and this can create policy conflicts. It is therefore important to publish regulatory guidelines to promote and regulate commercial wood farming, while minimising environmental and food security impacts and conflicts.
The EABL has taken a great leap for industrial wood energy. We now need to see others similarly promoting sustainable commercial wood farming not only for energy but also for paper manufacturing and timber. We should not be importing paper and timber. The government on its part should proactively support these efforts with enabling policies and where necessary fiscal incentives.
Yes, commercial wood farming can green the idle land in semi-arid counties while adding socio-economic values to the communities and the country.