Oxford Long-Term Ecology Lab

Long-Term Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation, and Environmental Stewardship Technologies


Members from other institutions

Stockholm Environment Institute

Dr. Francis Johnson (http://www.sei-international.org/staff?staffid=26) & Dr. Caroline Ochieng     (http://www.sei-international.org/staff?staffid=325)

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of South Africa

Dr. Graham von Maltitz

Bunda College (Malawi):

Dr. Charles Jumbe

Project Summary

Biofuel production expanded significantly across Africa in the past decade. Jatropha (for biodiesel) and sugarcane (for bioethanol) attracted the most attention. While sugarcane ethanol has a proven commercial model with excellent energy balances, jatropha is not yet proven commercially. Yet, it might offer valuable socioeconomic benefits, particularly to small-scale farmers.

Despite the mounting policy and investor interest, several early biofuel ventures collapsed. On several occasions these project collapses left poor local communities, even poorer. Some of these poverty outcomes are directly related to the loss of access of local communities to ecosystems; and the goods and services they provide. This implies that there are significant linkages between the environmental and the socioeconomic performance of biofuel projects but we still have an incomplete understanding of these interrelations in Africa lest developed countries (LDCs).

In order to link biofuel-driven ecosystem change and human wellbeing we employ the ecosystem services (ES) approach, which has been shown to capture the main environmental and socioeconomic impacts associated with biofuels production and use. The main ES that we consider are fuel, food/fodder/fibre, water, climate regulation, pollination and cultural services.


Project objectives

The aim of this interdisciplinary research is to provide clear empirical evidence on whether, and how, biofuel production and use can improve human wellbeing and become an agent of poverty alleviation in African LDCs. We have four main objectives:

– To synthesize the existing knowledge about the impact of biofuel expansion on ecosystem services and human wellbeing in Sub-Sahara Africa

– To compare the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of different biofuel production modes (e.g. based on scale of production, ownership and linkages to market) and biofuel uses (e.g. transport, cooking, lighting) for the main feedstocks in the region; jatropha and sugarcane

– To elucidate the mechanisms through which biofuel-driven ecosystem change affects human wellbeing

– To identify operational examples of novel institutional arrangement that ensure enhanced pro-poor benefits and the maximization of poverty alleviation benefits from biofuel projects.

Case studies

Our case studies span the main biofuel feedstocks (sugarcane, jatropha), modes of production (large-scale, small-scale), and uses (transport, cooking, lighting) in Sub-Sahara Africa

– Malawi (jatropha): BioEnergy Resources Ltd (BERL) is a smallholder-based jatropha company that buys seeds from thousands of smallholders across Malawi (~30,000 when in full operation) and aims to blend straight jatropha oil into diesel (for transport) and paraffin (for lighting)


– Malawi (sugarcane): The Dwangwa sugarcane project entails small-scale sugarcane production. It is mature from the production and market side, given the long-standing support of the Government of Malawi for sugarcane, both for ethanol for transport


– Mozambique (jatropha): Niqel is a large plantation currently growing jatropha on 1,500 ha. When in full operation it is expected to span over 5,000 ha and produce a large portion of the feedstock needed to meet the biodiesel mandate of the Government of Mozambique. Currently, it is one of the few jatropha projects that have not collapsed in Mozambique

– Swaziland (sugarcane): SWADE has piloted an alternative production model that combines aspects of large-scale and small-scale production. SWADE’s format is relatively unique as the community land owned by smallholders is pooled to form a commercial sugarcane enterprise (essentially a large plantation) that is fully owned by the community. All households that have contributed land in this venture are shareholders in the company and receive annual dividends from profits


Romeu-Dalmau C, Gasparatos A, von Maltitz G, Graham A, Almagro-Garcia J, Wilebore B, Willis K. 2016. Impacts of land use change due to biofuel crops on climate regulation services: five case studies in Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland. Biomass and Bioenergy.

Francis X. Johnson. 2015. Investigating ecology and poverty dimensions of biomass use and energy access: methodological issues. Available at: http://www.sei-international.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/SEI-DB-2015-Ecology-poverty-dimensions-biomass-use-energy-access.pdf

Gasparatos, A., Lee, L., von Maltitz, G., Mathai, M., Puppim de Oliveira, J., Johnson, F.X., Willis, K., 2013. Catalysing biofuel sustainability: International and national policy interventions. Environmental Policy and Law, 43, 216-221.  

Gasparatos, A., Lee, L.Y., von Maltitz, G., Mathai, M.V., Puppim de Oliveira, Willis, K.J., 2012. Biofuels in Africa: Impacts on ecosystem services, biodiversity and human wellbeing. UNU-IAS Policy Report, Yokohama. Available at http://www.ias.unu.edu/sub_page.aspx?catID=111&ddlID=169



Project Details



NERC-ESRC-DFID ESPA (http://www.espa.ac.uk/projects/ne-l001373-1), NERC-ESRC-DFID ESPA (http://www.espa.ac.uk/projects/eirg-2011-180)


Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique

Additional Researchers

Dr. Francis Johnson (Stockholm Environment Institute), Dr. Caroline Ochieng (Stockholm Environment Institute), Dr. Graham von Maltitz (CSIR, South Africa), Dr. Charles Jumbe (Bunda College Malawi)