European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel recently visited the CAR to take stock of the security situation, promote political stabilisation in the country and obtain commitments from the government in the matter of governance.
While there, he signed two financing agreements: one concerns €55 million for a comprehensive programme of institutional support and measures to open up the country, including the construction of a section of the Bouar-Garoua Boulai road, and the other €13.6 million for a programme to reduce multilateral and domestic arrears. These two operations make the Commission the CAR’s biggest donor.
The CAR is a large landlocked country (see map, click to enlarge) with a great untapped agricultural potential. It has one of the lowest population densities in the world (6.5 inhabitants/square kilometer). The CAR's 4 million inhabitants' average arable land availability is around 19 hectares per person, the highest ratio after Gabon and the DRCongo (see the FAO's Terrastat database).
Agriculture forms the backbone of the CAR's economy providing 55% of its GDP, and the sector employs around 70% of the country's population, which mainly lives in the countryside. Urbanisation in the CAR progresses very slowly, in contrast with other African countries. But despite the country's agricultural potential, its people belong to the poorest of the world, with an estimated yearly income of only US$300 per person. Large-scale bioenergy production offers a possible way out.
One of the main obstacles to the Central African Republic's development is its landlocked status, its lack of transport infrastructures and the high fuel import bills that drain its treasury. These factors strengthen each other and result in a negative synergy that keeps the CAR closed off from the outside world and its people in poverty. Transport fuels are extremely expensive in the country, because they have to be shipped in over the Congo and Ubangi rivers, and shortages are very frequent.
Given these factors, the CAR is one of those countries where the creation of a decentralised biofuels industry makes absolute sense. Locally produced transport fuels would reduce energy import bills and make it possible to gradually start exporting agricultural products, not in the least biofuels and biomass. The sustainable biomass production potential of the CAR is high, as a recent study by the EU's UCLOS project showed. The former french colony is one of those countries that make sub-Saharan Africa's long-term bioenergy potential so large (earlier post).
The CAR currently depends on international aid to survive economically and on NGOs for services the state is not capable of offering for lack of funds. Large-scale bioenergy production for exports could help end this dreadful situation.
In order to make this possible, basic investments in agriculture but especially in transport infrastructures are urgently needed. The country's main arteries, the Ubangi and Sangha rivers, are navigeable for most of the year, but it is the Congo river, in the DRCongo, which is the main bottleneck and requires most investment. Luckily, both the EU - with an extremely useful €5 billion infrastructure fund for Africa - and the World Bank are contributing to opening up these rivers, which are the backbone of Central African economies. Both institutions are very active in stabilising the region and reviving it, after it came out of a decade long civil war. Infrastructure, energy and agriculture are the key words in this large investment strategy. If these resources are put to good use, conditions are favorable to get a biofuels industry off the ground.
The following is a rough overview of indicators of the CAR's agricultural potential - the country currently uses less than 5% of its arable land - which we think can be illustrated with the help of some very basic maps:
biomass :: bioenergy :: biofuels :: energy :: sustainability :: ethanol :: biodiesel :: infrastructure :: river transport :: Congo :: Central African Republic :: EU ::
A main advantage of the CAR is the fact that its population density is extremely low, and its population is relatively evenly spread out over the country's territory, meaning it has an abundant land resource and a fairly low risk profile when it comes to potential social conflicts over land:
Secondly, and importantly, the country is made up largely of savanna, grasslands and scattered secondary forest. The precious ecosystem of the Congo Basin's rainforest is confined south of the Ubangi river, which means the CAR does not have to confront the controversial issue of deforestation, that often accompanies the biofuels debate. A map of the extent of the Congo Basin's rainforest makes the point (click to enlarge).
The CAR has a varied subtropical climate with the South being permanently humid, the largest, central part having a rainy and a dry season, with the upper North-east of the country being hot, dry and plagued by desertification. The country's main rivers are looked at as a great resource for irrigation. In the 1960s, they were the object of an (overly ambitious) plan to divert their water into Lake Chad. The copious amount of water from the Ubangi would revitalize that dying lake and provide livelihoods in fishing and enhanced agriculture to tens of millions of food insecure Central African and Sahelian people. Recently, the idea has regained attention because the cost and the technical hurdles faced by the proposal are supposedly quite manageable, compared to what it can achieve in uplifting the fate of those poorest of the African poor.
When it comes to the basic land suitability for different crops in the CAR, we refer to the following maps (all made by the Biopact, drawing on the FAO's database of Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping). Even though it remains to be seen which type of crops would make the best mix for the CAR's biofuel future, the maps, based on the agro-ecological zoning methodology, show the basic potential for different widely grown sugar and starch rich crops that can be seen as feedstocks for liquid biofuels. All maps show the suitability for rainfed cropping, with high inputs. The potential for crops under irrigation is not taken into account.
The exact hectarages and the potential yields for the crops can be found at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis's (IIASA) database of Global Agro-Ecological Zones (produced in collaboration with the FAO).
According to these datasets, the CAR has a total land area of 45.3 million hectares suitable for agriculture, out of a total territory of 61.8 million hectares. Of this land base, 29.8 million hectares are very suitable and suitable, 11 million ha are moderately suitable and 4.5 million are marginally suitable for rainfed agriculture under high inputs. The suitable area does not change much as inputs decrease (meaning low-input agriculture is feasible on a large scale). (Note: all datasets from the IIASA are formatted as *.xls files).
Interestingly, 42.9 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for sweet potatos, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). Sweet potato could become a driver of a true carbohydrate economy and is a seriously underutilized tropical sugar crop. However, some concrete projects are underway to produce ethanol from the plant's tubers and some of the world's leading companies (such as Toyota) are exploring its potential as a source for the production of lactic acid, from which bioplastics can be made (earlier post).
40.7 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for cassava, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). We have reported frequently on the potential for cassava to drive a bio-ethanol economy with the added advantage that, just like sugarcane, the crop yields an abundance of biomass residues that can be used for electricity generation (and later for cellulosic ethanol or for synthetic biofuels, if the conversion technologies for these second-generation fuels become commercially viable).
Some 25.2 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for sorghum, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). The CAR would be a country where the ICRISAT's sweet sorghum hybrids for ethanol would grow well (earlier post).
31.5 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to moderately suitable for soybeans, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge).
Finally, according to the IIASA some 32.9 million hectares of the CAR's land base are very suitable to marginally suitable for sugarcane, under rainfed conditions (click to enlarge). It must be noted that of this total, only 4.4 million hectares are 'suitable', 12.7 million ha are classified as 'moderately suitable' and 15.8 mio ha are 'marginally suitable'. The main reason is sugarcane's relatively high water needs. Sweet sorghum holds a far better potential in the CAR.
Vast parts of the Central African Republic are also suitable for plantation trees such as eucalyptus and acacia - for which no AEZ maps and exact numbers are available. But there are some good data on this from a recent study carried out by European research organisations who looked at the sustainable production potential for woody biomass that could fuel energy intensive industrial sectors such as steel making, identified the country as one of the most interesting in sub-Saharan Africa.
In short, this brief overview of some of the indicators of the CAR's agricultural situation clearly indicates that the country can in theory become a strong bioenergy producer. If the growing food, fiber, fodder and fuel needs of the CAR's steadily growing (but still very small population) are met, the country still has a large resource base left for green energy production, which it can export.
But there is of course a wide gap between purely theoretical projections and assessments relying on natural factors (land, climate, etc...) and the economic, concrete potential, which is determined by man-made factors: from the political stability and investment climate in a country over its infrastructures to the way its leaders manage their country.
It is on this front that Louis Michel's initiative must be situated. The European Commissioner known for making Central Africa the prime focus of his policies said during his trip: “I am delighted to be making this visit, which is the first by a European Commissioner to the Central African Republic in over 30 years. The European Commission is proud to be assisting political change in the country. It is time to build on the achievements. I am delighted to see the inclusive dialogue that has been initiated between the government, opposition parties and civil society. We are aware of the difficult regional situation, which is exacerbated by the Darfur crisis, and want to give a tangible demonstration of our solidarity with the Central African Republic.”
Under the 9th European Development Fund (EDF, 2002-2007), the European Commission has focused on infrastructure, macroeconomic support and strengthening sound management of public finances. A further €15.5 million has been committed from the Peace Facility for Africa to help finance the multinational force (FOMUC) mandated by the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) until 30 June 2007. In particular, 2007 will see the commitment of €8 million for a support project for the health sector.
The country's initial allocation of €109 million under the 10th EDF (2008-2013) will be used to develop secondary towns and the surrounding areas by restoring the government’s authority and decentralised services (education, health, water, sanitation, tracks, infrastructure, communications networks, justice, policing and energy).
Cooperation with the CAR had been partially suspended in the wake of March 2003’s coup d’état. Close consultations ensued between the European Union and the CAR under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement. The Commission provided €3 million to help finance the organisation of elections in 2005. Full cooperation was restored in July 2005.