by Marcos Fava Neves

Sugar cane vital to economy

Industry can energise job creation

Ethanol production could create thousands of jobs in Africa.

This increased awareness can be attributed to the rise in consumer expectations about the way food is produced and where it comes from; the emergence of a new generation more worried about planet conditions; the scarcity and, in some cases, depletion of natural resources as farmers increase production to feed a growing population; and the effects of climate change.

The impacts for agrifood system participants are hard to ignore.

Farmers and agribusiness companies are now expected to reduce their environmental footprint, to increase transparency and facilitate a better flow of information, to be better governed and promote corporate social responsibility, to be more inclusive, and to be better stewards of the environment and increase the usage of renewable energy sources.

The legitimacy of agribusiness firms – and entire agrifood value chains – is not only dependent on economic factors but also on social and environmental sustainability. Simply put, in the 21st century planet and people matter as much as profits.

The role of biofuels in delivering sustainability

Some researchers suggest that biofuels could play a big part in the solution for poor countries to diversify business and ensure sustainable development.

Several countries that implemented biofuels development programmes have experienced significant job creation, especially in rural areas but also along the value chain.

The International Labour Organization estimates the number of jobs created in the renewable energy sector will double by 2020 with about 300 000 new jobs.

In the early phase of the bio-ethanol programme in the US, around 147 000 jobs were created in different sectors of the economy.

This short article outlines some potential benefits of biofuel development in Africa.

The development of the sugarcane industry in Brazil may serve as a model.

The industry output is impressive: 550 million metric tons of sugarcane is used as raw material to produce 31 MMT of sugar (equivalent to 20% of world production), 27 billion liters of ethanol (30% of world production) and bio-electricity.

Ethanol production alone creates 465 000 direct jobs, which is six times larger than the oil industry in Brazil.

According to industry estimates, the average wage paid by member companies of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) was double that of the current federal minimum wage.

Ethanol production is present in 1 042 municipalities across the country, compared to only 176 for oil. This translates into more income distribution and community development in rural areas.

As for the environment, the use of sugarcane ethanol has generated a reduction of 600 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions since 1975, an amount equivalent to the carbon sequestered with the planting of two billion trees.

In economic terms, specialists conclude that for every litre of ethanol used, the country saves US$ 20 cents in carbon mitigation costs.

Since 2007 the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry AssociationBrazilian Sugarcane Industry Association UNICA has been working on several fronts to facilitate industry-wide sustainability efforts, including:

• signing an agreement with the government of São Paulo state – called the Green Protocol – in which the industry voluntarily agreed to speed up the phasing-out of the practice of sugarcane burning;

• leading the Brazilian Climate Alliance with 15 other organisations to propose proactive policies in Brazil and in global climate change negotiations. UNICA has also created an educational programme about climate change that will impact more than two million students in Brazil;

• signing the National Commitment to Enhance Work Conditions in the sugarcane industry together with labour unions and the federal government – the first national agreement to recognise best labour practices. Of the 400 cane mills in operation throughout Brazil, more than 300 have voluntarily signed on to the commitment;

• launching a 'retooling' programme for cane workers to lessen the impact of harvest mechainisation on job losses. The project will train 7 000 workers per year (mostly sugarcane cutters) to prepare them to take on other jobs in the sugarcane industry or in other sectors;

• hiring a team of professionals to foster the adoption of Corporate Social Responsibility practices by sugarcane mills. In addition, since 2008 UNICA has adopted sustainability reports – following the model developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) – to communicate its social, environmental and economic performance. In 2008, member companies invested over R$160 million in 618 projects within social, environmental, cultural, education, sport and health areas, benefiting some 480 thousand people in communities with sugarcane production;

• engaging with several multi-stakeholder initiatives. It is represented in the board of directors of Bonsucro and helped develop a certification scheme for sustainable sugarcane production.

The first sugarcane processors to receive the Bonsucro sustainability certification in 2011 are based in Brazil.

The same economic, social and environmental benefits could also happen in Africa.

The sustainability practices outlined above could serve as a benchmark for Africa.

Our main message and objective is to show how biofuels – and sugarcane in particular – can contribute to economic and social development in Africa, producing renewable fuel to be used in booming African cities, sugar to supply domestic and export markets, bio-electricity from the process of burning the bagasse, and also to serve as the feedstock to all new bio-based products that are in the pipeline, such as bioplastics, biodiesel and others.

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Issue 39