Biofuels: Threat or opportunity for women?


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In Africa, where two-thirds of farmers are women, the potential of biofuels as a low or lower-carbon alternative fuel, with applications at the household energy, community and village level, to a national resource or export commodity, has a critical gender dimension. The key question is: how will increased biofuel production affect women?

To look at the impacts on women, one logical approach is to use a computable general equilibrium model that tracks economic impacts of new crops and how patterns of trade and substitution will change. It’s important to account for the complexities involved, and rely not on a simple, traditional commodity model but one that tracks the impacts on women through changing prices and demands for crops to be sold on local and international markets. Who gains and who loses as prices change, and as the value of specific crops and of land changes?

In a detailed modeling effort based on the situation today in Mozambique, World Bank economist Rui Benfica and colleagues (Arndt, et al., 2011) found that even with significant land area available, the impacts of large increases in bio-fuels production — which are now under way — will do little to benefit women. This is largely because shifts to export-oriented and commercial agriculture, while they may raise export earnings, often exclude women. Women are often already far over-burdened by work and time commitments to subsistence farming, other income-generating activities and household work, including child care. The CGE model shows that financially profitable bio-fuel expansions may widen this gap, and reinforce this exclusion.

Interestingly, including a focus on primary school education for girls (a good idea already, but one made quantitative in these studies) in skills training programs can address this concern. For many women, however, the same problem remains: there is simply no time to take advantage of new opportunities. Mozambique is an important illustrative example, as its agriculture sector is heavily dependent on small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women. 

Thus, bio-fuel policies — both positive and negative — can lead to attention to issues of gender inequality where planning can play a major role. Our challenge is reflect these shared benefits – food security, economic opportunity, and climate protection, in clear and transparent metrics. By doing so, we can gain insights into the economic realities of poor households.

Do solutions exist that take advantage of new commodities and markets, without essentially pricing poor women farmers out of local subsistence agriculture (or onto even poorer land) and denying them the benefits of added commercial sales? One avenue is work to anticipate these changes – based on the sort of modeling that Rui Benfica and colleagues did – and to issue land certificates to women so that they can more easily hold onto their land if commercial markets begin to encroach on their agricultural holdings. 

One potential solution is that applied in Ethiopia, where a system of community-driven and managed land certification has provided women with land-tenure security. This is explored, along with other solutions in a recent book edited by Calestous Juma of Harvard University, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (2011).  

What else can be done? Agricultural productivity requires an ‘enabling infrastructure’ beyond the requisite land, seeds, and water. Networks to bring crops to market with minimal losses on the fields and post-harvest (where up to one-third of yields can be lost in some poor nations) are one aspect to consider, as is the use of information technology to warn even the poorest subsistence farmers (often women) of extreme weather, and to help communities find new outlets for their commodities. Another angle is added planning for diversified cropping, including cases where food, feed, and fibre (for durable goods or biofuels) can be grown together in more resilient eco-agricultural systems.




Daniel Kammen

Former Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

May 27, 2011

What an important and challenging issue. I love the idea of a community of women teaching and taking agricultural business classes together, which leads them to a community farming setup, where they can work together to raise biofuels, while also having food security through allocated plots of land.
Adding to the curriculum lessons on sustainable farming will be important to ensure that fertilizer doesn't pollute local water sources; that monocultures do not threaten the existence of the farm, and that the land is used with complementary crops that don't devastate the soil after a few seasons.

Jnr. Sam
May 27, 2011

Are there any physical support given to people with diversifying agricultural ideas?

Eva Markiewicz
May 27, 2011

I wonder if the interests of women could be best served through a land leasing system. Perhaps by leasing to biofuel producers, they could generate enough income that they could send their daughters to primary school and themselves to trade school or finance a start-up. I think the key to alleviating poverty and improving the situation for women is to increase their sustained income. I'm not sure how this rental system would be managed, but I think some sort of not-for-profit 3rd party or government agency would set the rental price for land and facilitate in the management of resources (land, funds, etc). This 3rd party might also take a portion of the revenue and invest it in community building - particularly schools that serve girls and women and perhaps micro loans for female entrepreneurs. Women would of course be free to choose whether or not to participate in the land leasing system - they could choose to continue their subsistence farming activities, but if they sold the land then they would be required to sell it at fair-market value to the 3rd party agency. The law should specify that a biofuel company could not purchase land designated as being under administration by this 3rd party agency, so the biofuel company would be saddled with the blame/responsibility. This would not be dissimilar to land purchasing/leasing laws in countries like Spain or Mexico.

Also, maybe these biofuel companies could be incentivized to train/hire women by offering them certain tax benefits or lower rental rates proportional to the number of women they hire and the positions that these women hold at the company.

Also, this is a blatant plug for the BeeHive School that I volunteer with in Mzuzu, Malawi located in South Eastern Africa. But one of the main reasons I was attracted to the school is their philosophy towards education of girls. It is one of the few top-quality schools that I visited where girls are present in the same numbers as boys. These girls are treated with equal attention as the boys and are given the same level of high expectations by the teachers, staff, and parents.

Kevin Fingerman
May 27, 2011

In the vein of blatant plugs, I'd like to call attention to the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels ( This multi-stakeholder initiative to identify, certify, and promote responsibly produced fuels can help to ensure that any biofuel expansion delivers benefits to rural women and other potentially vulnerable populations. Central to the RSB's certification system are criteria ensuring that "special measures that benefit and encourage the participation of women, youth, indigenous communities and the vulnerable in biofuel operations [are] designed and implemented." The RSB certification also requires that data for women in social surveys be disaggregated to ensure that impacts on them are understood, that labor conditions are fair and safe for women, and that Free Prior and Informed Consent processes make special efforts to engage with female stakeholders and other potentially vulnerable populations.

There are certainly biofuels that will deliver net detriment to society, but 3rd party certification from the RSB can play a role in identifying those that truly deliver on their promise of sustainability

May 28, 2011

This is a very interesting proposal, and the cite to the program in Mexico is particularly interesting. In the Mexican Village Law, communities could lease but not sell the land.
The results were mixed. Some communities did well, others saw little revenue because the leases had to be very short, 1 year. This in part protected communities from losing access to their land, but also discouraged larger investments in infrastructure, as the companies were not sure they would get a return on their efforts.

In the case of biofuels investments, not only would care be needed to ensure that sustainable practices were implemented, but also that reasonable rules for any greenhouse gas costs and benefits would be worked out in advance. One such issue is discussed in [1].

[1] Searchinger, T., Hamburg, S., Melillo, J., Kammen, D. M., Lubowski, R., Oppenheimer, M., Robertson, G. P., Schlessinger, W., and Tilman, G. D. (2009) “Fixing a critical climate accounting error”, Science, 326, 527 – 528 (23 October).

Alex Koberle
May 29, 2011

I believe some lessons can be drawn from the biodiesel program of the Brazilian government established in 2005 and currently undergoing implementation. The programme mandates a 5% addition of biodiesel to fossil diesel sold to final consumers. It offers tax incentives and exclusive access to auctions to those refiners that purchase some or all of their raw feedstocks from family farms. The amount they must purchase varies by region in Brazil from 10% in the North and Central-West regions to 50% in the semi-arid and impoverished Northeast. The Social Fuel Certification program is administered by the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA in Portuguese) and the goal of this provision is to provide social inclusion by ensuring a buyer for the crops, access to lines of credit and technical training provided by the refiners in what would otherwise be an industry dominated by industrial farms.

These provisions are laudable indeed but the scope of this inclusion has been criticized as not going far enough. One study quotes Professor Celio Berman, from the University of Sao Paulo (USP) who concluded that

"small family farmers have been invited to participate in the Programme as mere producers of grains [...] the inclusion of family agriculture was idealized in such a way as to favour large biodiesel producers. The use of labour through family farming allows the large biodiesel producer to operate with a larger margin of profit."

The paper continues:

"A legislative consultant in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, P.C.R. Lima, identified this weakness, stating that ‘‘the current legislation does not establish any incentive for the installation of small units of biofuel production nor for the aggregation of value to the production of raw materials, which will, as always, leave the farmers dependent on the industrial producer." [Garcez and Vianna. Brazilian Biodiesel Policy: Social and environmental considerations of sustainability. Energy 34 (2009) 645–6540]

This is an important point because for one, small farmers too often lack the negotiating skills and conditions needed to procure favorable contracts for their goods and, in the worst cases may even be blatantly taken advantage of. In the Northeast region for example, one refiner is so dominant it produces 90.5% of the biodiesel. This is approaching a monopsony and the farmers stand to lose from competition for their crops [ibid].

I am not claiming that foul play is happening but in a region notorious for its injustices and corruption, these conditions are worrisome. Ideally, any programme that encourages farmers to grow a particular crop should also make provisions for the existence of a market that will absorb those crops at a fair price. Or go even further and provide conditions for the creation of cooperatives to process the crops into finished products, thereby keeping the added value in the hands of the farmers.

Priviledge Cheteni
May 29, 2011

First of all l would like to thank the World Bank for such a good platform in discussing issues faced by women in BioFuels.l am doing a Biogas Project in Alice South Africa and as l started the project l saw it vital that women can actual do what was termed men`s job.The person who supervises my site is a lady to begin with she is a civil engineer,the person enganging the village in teaching them how to use Biogas are two ladies communications experts ,then when it comes to dirty work the digging and building of the digester are men.However,if the digester start to produce gas the person to manage and monitor every thing in the digester would be a lady.At the end of the day l think women ought to be given a chance where they would contribute immensely in the Biofuels field.We have a lot of different proffessions that ladies are doing which can actual helps in accommodating them in every Biofuels clinatic change initiatives.So the big issue is to just let them be involved in the process and as time goes by they can sustain themselves with the knowledge they get.Women can start entreprenuer ventures in any Biofuels and make good use of the ecosystem as long as we give them the opportunity to be involved.

Arthur Mason
May 30, 2011

Securing land tenure, providing enabling infrastructure and increasing access to education sounds like a good plan for anticipating the unintended consequences associated with increased biofuel production. I'm glad to see the World Bank highlighting the concern. The need for stakeholder engagement and transparency of some of the on the ground practices and participants involved in establishing a commodity-style production of biofuels also seems important. For example, land certificates and managed land certification is indeed both a bureaucratic and educational process. In what way can women, now requiring a certificate for something they already had access to without one-- become part of the process of defining understandings --legal and otherwise-- that support the basis of legitimacy over this new right? I quite like the comparison to the Ethiopia case study on this point, as it might be a good place to begin thinking about some of the procedures and stresses required in order to get these anticipatory plans done right.