Insect muffins? Africa's bio-economies boost food, energy security

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 June 2022 10:48 GMT

Entrepreneur Dominic Kahumbu and his team use a boat to harvest water hyacinth to be converted into biogas, on Lake Victoria, near the town of Kisumu, Kenya June 9, 2021. Picture taken with a drone June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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Sustainable use of nature for innovative products can help build stronger economies and create jobs for young Africans

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, June 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Faced with the double hit of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, many African nations are looking to nature to bolster their economies sustainably - from meat and baked goods made of lake flies to coffee husks generating renewable energy.

A recent report published by the Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of 18 top African and international scientists, explores the best ways to improve nutrition, food supplies and energy security in Africa by fostering a nature-based "bio-economy".

"Given its vast resources and fast-growing science and innovation capacities, the African continent can be at the forefront of building its own sustainable bio-economy," said Joachim von Braun, panel co-chair from the University of Bonn.

About 60 countries worldwide have already adopted the approach, which taps into science, technology and innovation to sustainably produce and use renewable plant and animal resources for food, fuel and other goods, according to the new report.

Entitled "Nature's Solutions: Policy Innovations and Opportunities for Africa's Bioeconomy", it looks at four African nations - Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda - whose policies and innovations are blazing a trail.

Here's why bio-economies are important and how they can help African countries combat rising food, fuel and fertiliser costs, as well as climate change-fuelled impacts like drought:

Why are African countries well-placed to develop bio-economies?

Africa has abundant biodiversity and roughly 60% of its workforce earns a living from the farming sector.

This offers large potential for developing a "bio-economy" - from making use of agricultural by-products and waste, all the way to processing indigenous plant and animal species into new, higher-value products. 

Examples include a native fruit called monkey orange, which is widely available in southern Africa and rich in vitamin C, zinc and iron. It can be dried or made into jam, juices or wines so it can be consumed year-round as part of nutritious diets.

Elsewhere, flies found around the Lake Victoria region in East Africa are being turned into foods like crackers, muffins, meatloaf and sausages.

And so-called Faidherbia "fertiliser trees" are being planted alongside crops in Malawi, where they shed their leaves and provide soil nutrients as a replacement for chemical fertilisers, boosting maize yields.

On the energy front, coffee husks and pulp are being turned into bio-gas in Ethiopia, and fruit waste transformed into a bio-alkanol gel that burns without smoke or soot in the Lake Victoria basin.

These bio-fuels can be used for cooking that is greener and healthier for women who bear the brunt of indoor air pollution.

In addition, Africa's youth population is expected to double to more than 830 million by 2050.

Growing a bio-economy can contribute much-needed employment opportunities for more of the 10-12 million young people who enter the workforce each year, where only about 3 million new jobs are created annually, the report said.

How can African nations better take advantage of bio-economy opportunities?

To fully capitalise on bio-solutions, African leaders should first identify sectors that offer the easiest wins for their development ambitions, the panel said.

The next step is strengthening research and development, and creating demand to attract business involvement.

Policymakers can also introduce rules and regulations that incentivise investment in the bio-economy, such as certification schemes or advisory boards to guide a transition at scale.

The benefits are already evident in some places.

South Africa, for example, assessed that its bio-economy contributed 8% of its gross domestic product and created as many as 16 million jobs between 2007 and 2020 - about 70% of it in the food and beverage industry and agricultural sector.

One of its most successful products is a mosquito-repelling candle made from the oils of an indigenous plant and now available in major retailers across the country.

Uganda is one of the few African countries that has drafted a national bio-economy plan, which targets food, farming and traditional medicines, while Namibia is working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to develop its first national bio-economy strategy.

Meanwhile, the East African Community is the first economic body in the region to develop a dedicated bio-economy strategy.

"Sustainability and adaptation to a changing climate require a more judicious use of biological and ecological resources," said Ousmane Badiane, Malabo Montpellier Panel co-chair.

"This includes how these resources might be leveraged to generate innovative products that help mitigate climate change, conserve resources and protect biodiversity, while creating new and well-paying employment opportunities."      

Why is wise use of nature crucial for the world economy now?

With global food supplies and prices impacted by conflict, growing populations, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly important for all countries to find innovative solutions, the report said.

While most African nations are still at the early stages of developing bio-economies, global trends - especially in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America and India - indicate a wider shift towards the approach, it added.

About 60 countries have already drafted related strategies, including 14 in Africa that are now in the process.

Creating bio-economies will also depend on better conservation and management of natural areas, such as oceans, forests and parks - all seen as crucial to safeguarding the ecosystems on which humans and animals depend. 

But often, governments opt to just set aside protected areas without any real investment or ignore the potential rewards from nature-reliant industries that adopt sustainable practices.

Examples include an economic return of at least six times original investments in protected areas and support for nature-based tourism, according to a World Bank report last year. 

Besides tourism revenue, surrounding businesses can create jobs and provide quality services, like lodgings, restaurants and indigenous handicrafts, that bring in more visitors.

In farming, more sustainable livelihoods can be created by using green methods such as organic fertilisers and new crop varieties, selective logging, and promoting local, traditional foods and products sourced from forests or nature.

Related stories:

Ending subsidies that harm nature could create millions of green jobs, WWF says 

New global fund invests in nature to shore up climate change fight 

COVID-hit China urged to move U.N. summit to save global nature deal 

To stem nature loss, start by ending harmful subsidies, economists say 

(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling.  Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

((michael.taylor@thomsonreuters.com;))