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Current trends: Greener tea and cleaner sugar for Africa

Tea is central to the economy of East Africa (© FAO/11841/F. Botts)
Tea is central to the economy of East Africa
© FAO/11841/F. Botts

A sweet cup of tea is a part of life in many African countries but the tea and sugar industries face the growing problems of energy shortages, rising fuel costs, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now many tea and sugar producers are looking to alternative, environmentally-sustainable fuel sources.

Towards "greener" tea

Tea is central to the economy of East Africa and, with over 150 tea factories in the region, the sector provides employment and much-needed foreign exchange. But the fuel-hungry industry has been hit by unreliable electricity supplies, forcing many producers to use oil-fired generators to back-up temperamental national grids. As well as frequent power cuts causing damage to sensitive equipment, the rising cost of fuel for generators has forced up the price of the region's teas, making them less competitive on world markets.

One possible solution lies in the tea-growing areas themselves, which are characterised by hilly terrain and high rainfall. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-led initiative, Greening the Tea Industry in East Africa, is to establish several small hydropower programmes in countries covered by the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA)*. The multimillion dollar project aims to provide tea producers with a reliable electricity supply while simultaneously increasing the industry's use of renewable energy.

Initially, six demonstration projects will be established in at least four of the EATTA countries and, if these are successful, small hydropower units will be built across the region. As well as powering the tea factories with cleaner, more dependable fuel, an essential part of the project is rural electrification, allowing local communities to access surplus electricity and bringing light, power, employment and energy security to surrounding villages. It is hoped that after the initial four-year test period in the tea growing areas, the project could eventually generate over 80 megawatts (MW) of power and reach up to eight million people.

Sweetness and light

The problems of high energy prices and unreliable power supplies also affect East and Southern Africa's sugar industry. However, cogeneration - the use of agricultural waste to produce energy - could provide a cost-efficient alternative.

The agricultural waste bagasse - the residue from sugarcane stalks after the juice has been extracted - is a well-established fuel source in Mauritius, where it is burned to meet up to 40 per cent of the country's electricity needs. Now another UNEP-led initiative, Cogeneration for Africa, is to encourage the use of low-cost, renewable, indigenous fuels from agricultural waste and provide power for some of Africa's sugar factories.

Sugarcane producers might be able to use the agricultural waste, bagasse, as fuel (WRENmedia)
Sugarcane producers might be able to use the agricultural waste, bagasse, as fuel

The Metahara Sugar factory in Ethiopia is already a leading light in cogeneration. The company produces 120,000 tonnes of sugar every year, with over 300,000 tonnes of bagasse as by-product. Used as boiler fuel, the bagasse produces enough steam to run the entire factory, with surplus electricity used by the local community.

Other forms of agricultural waste also have great potential as alternative fuel sources, with sisal waste and coconut husks being used for cogeneration in Tanzania. UNEP anticipates that sugar producers, as well as other companies and individuals in the agro-processing sector, will be able to supply waste products to create electricity. It expects the initiative to spark a surge of cogeneration investment in the region worth up to US$300m.

If the scheme's six-year pilot phase is successful, cogeneration could produce up to 40MW of power and up to 200 MW of clean, green energy in the medium-to-long term - equal to the generating capacity of some nuclear reactors. Reduced operating costs could help producers become more competitive and give local economies a much-needed boost. It is hoped the scheme will act as a precursor to wider rural electrification, which could make life sweeter for up to ten million sugar farmers, workers and their communities in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Swaziland.

Long road ahead

Using the local environment and agricultural waste to produce reliable sources of electricity could revolutionise Africa's tea and sugar industries, and bring employment and fuel security to rural areas. The wider livelihood benefits are more difficult to assess, particularly as the projects will take several years to come to fruition during a time when the industries will continue to be subject to rising world fuel prices and intermittent supplies. But at the very least the initiatives will ultimately mean energy supplies will be cheaper, more dependable, and environmentally friendly.

*Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

With contributions from: Zablon Odhiambo

Date published: January 2008


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