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Burkina Faso Engineering School Develops Green Responses to African Energy Needs

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8 February 2013

A European Union (EU) supported bio-fuel research centre reinforces the energy-capacities in West Africa, thanks to a unique partnership involving West African engineering school 2iE, a leading French research centre, local expertise and the sub-region's national electricity companies .

Five hundred students from 30 countries - from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the USA – graduate every year in green energy engineering from a remarkable school based in Burkina Faso (see Voices&Views, "Making University Relevant for the African Labour Market").

In partnership with CIRAD, the French research centre in agriculture for development, the school is also a leading research centre in green energy.

It has developed two green energy devices designed mainly for users living in decentralized parts of Africa: a hybrid grain mill engine that works on both vegetable oil and gazoil that could help mechanise African small scale farms, and a hybrid solar/biofuel and pure vegetable oil power plant pilot based on the so called “Flexy-Energy” concept, developed by the 2iE solar laboratory.

Access to electricity is seen as a key indicator of development in Sub-Saharan Africa where only 14% of the total population has access to electricity, a figure which drops even further in rural areas. Around 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, where electricity access is often nonexistent.

Sayon Sidibé, an engineer and green energy expert at 2iE, has taken part in the development of a vegetable oil that can be used in stationary diesel engines for farming activities such as raw material transformation and grain mills.

Dr Joël Blin directs the school’s research projects on bio-fuel. The success of the school’s research centre, he said, lies not only in the scientific results, but in taking into account the context of Burkina Faso and the culture of its people. The school has been able to create partnerships with local authorities, the national electricity companies of both Burkina Faso and Mali and the end-users.

“Our research has focused primarily on farming activities, whereas everywhere else people focus on bio-fuel for transport purposes,” Blin explained.

Sensitive to the local situation, researchers decided to develop the bio-fuel potential of jatropha, a locally found plant that is toxic, rather than use sunflowers, which are regarded as a highly valuable food commodity in a part of the world with food security problems.

“Many people here have either been hit by hunger themselves or have seen it hitting people in their community, so at this stage it would be unacceptable to them to see us putting sunflower oil in engines. So we use jatropha,” Blin said.

In the long run, however, 2iE hopes to promote the culture of different kinds of oil in order to incite farmers to increase their production of food oil, so that when there is either a surplus, or quality problems that make the oil inedible, it could end up on a bio-fuel market.

The local context guides the school’s projects at every level. In order to develop bio-fuel for transport engines, scientists at 2iE associate jatropha with ethanol, produced locally out of sugar-cane, instead of methanol, which is an oil residue not produced in Burkina Faso.

“Our bio-fuel is 100% locally produced and 100% vegetable,” Blin said.

Setting a norm

Another key to the success of the 2iE green energy department has been to set up a quality standard for the vegetable oil used as fuel in stationary diesel engines, which could be eventually endorsed by the entire West African Economic and Monetary Union.

The main stakeholders, including SONABEL, the national electricity company of Burkina Faso and EDM, its counterpart in Mali, alongside government officials, have adopted common technical standards of vegetable oil for fuel.

“This is important because we need to develop bio-fuel that does not spoil the engines and that people trust,” Blin said.

Dr Yao Azoumah, director of the Joint Research Center of Sustainable Energy and Habitat, in charge of solar energy at 2iE, said the institutional and financial support provided by the EU, as well as its “general vision of development in Sub-Saharan Africa”, has allowed a genuine dialogue with the EU to foster.

“We learn from them as much as they learn from us!” he said.

The EU supports the projects developed by 2iE in the field of energy with a total grant of € 3,3 million. Jean-Baptiste Fauvel, an energy project officer with the EU Delegation to Burkina Faso said that 2iE is a unique project as it based on South-South cooperation, by enrolling students and engineer experts from as many as 30 countries, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This has allowed an African expertise to develop that takes into account local realities such as the sunshine, the Harmattan wind-related dust that can affect the equipment, and local plants such as jatropha, and thus help develop unique techniques that can push the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa forward.”

2IE is just one of a dozen beneficiaries of EU grants in the field of energy in Bukina Faso. A project called "Solar Energy for Improved Livelihood in Burkina Faso" has created a so-called Decentralized Service Company which will provide some 3000 households with individual solar panels on a sustainable "fee-for-service" basis. Other projects aim to provide electricity to rural areas through micro-scale solar photovoltaic power plants and jatropha-curcas-oil-run village gensets; offering micro-credit loans to poor households for solar panels; or supporting capacity building to the benefit of both public and private stakeholders.

The largest EU-backed energy project in Burkina Faso consists of developing a 22 Megawatt-peak solar photovoltaic power plant on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. Financed by a € 25 million grant from the EU, and loans totaling some € 38 million from the European Investment Bank and the Agence Française de Développement (ADF), the power plant will be the biggest of its kind in Western Africa.

Addressing last year’s European Development Days, Stina Soewarta, then Member of Cabinet at the Development and Cooperation DG of the European Commission (EC), said the EC would continue to support the development of green energy in poor countries but would always be cautious in addressing both the issue of food security and the need for green energy.

“Those who are deprived of food and of energy are in fact the same people. They need both food and energy for their development,” she said at the end of a high-level panel on bio-energy. She stressed that the EU would always support green energy access to decentralized areas and would never import bio-fuel from partner countries to meet its own energy needs.

Please read these related documents in the Public Group on Energy:
Les biocarburants, une opportunité pour réduire la pauvreté au Burkina Faso ?
Vers une stratégie nationale de développement des filières biocarburant : le cas du Burkina Faso
Food vs Fuel - Is there a need to choose?
This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Dr Joël Blin, Yao Azoumah, Sayon Sidibé, Jean-Baptiste FauvelStina Soewartaand Arnaud de Vanssay, with support from the Coordination Team

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission.

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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