On the Job With Meghan Sapp

At Work: She’s the Secretary General of PANGEA, Partners for Euro-African Green Energy, a nonprofit bioenergy trade association based in Brussels.

Her Focus: Promoting sustainable African bioenergy investment, policies, and production.

On the Web: “Land Grab Refocus: Roots and Possible Demise of Land Grabbing,” a 2011 PANGEA report at www.pangealink.org

Sugar politics to biofuels
I was a lobbyist for the LDC (Least Developed Countries) during the European Union sugar reform in 2005, which put me in touch with many of the players in sugarcane as well as the ministers from those countries. The EU promised to transition sugarcane economies away from sugar and into other products like ethanol, but didn’t. In the meantime, I had developed and nearly got funded a large-scale, small farmer-based sugarcane-to-ethanol project in Kenya that sadly was affected by the 2007 post-election violence, so never got off the ground. But it meant I had biofuel experience in a place where that was rare, so the ministers from my LDC sugar lobbying days came back to me and said, “Do something about this EU biofuels problem.” And PANGEA was born.

A trade association but no trade yet
PANGEA is attempting to create a sustainable bioenergy industry in Africa. Being that the industry doesn’t yet exist it requires a lot more than what would be your typical trade association. There are a lot of trade associations in Brussels; there are the ethanol producers, the biodiesel producers, the algae producers. But those are all industries with existing players and existing companies and existing production and statistics and lobbying platforms. PANGEA, I hope, will someday be like that, too. But in the meantime, there’s a lot more that needs to happen than just being lobbyists. There’s an enormous knowledge gap that we have to fill so we do things like reports collecting and analyzing all the bioenergy related policies in Sub-Saharan Africa. We participated in a big report last year on indirect land use change (in consortium with some others) and we put five months into our big report on what the real issues behind land-grabbing in Africa are.

Brussels as home base
I ended up in Brussels because I was an agriculture journalist looking to move to Europe, and Brussels is the heart of European politics and Belgium gives residency visas for journalists who are going to write about European institutions. PANGEA ended up in Brussels partly because I was there and partly because it is the diplomatic home base for the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) Group of States. Everyone has diplomatic representation in Brussels. If we wanted to base ourselves in Johannesburg, it would be physically in Africa but it would be extremely difficult to have the kind of reach that we can get in Brussels.

Who’s doing what
Almost all African countries are looking at it, but they’re all in very different stages, which was why it was so important for us to put together our latest policy report to see who’s doing what. In terms of cool projects, one is CleanStar Mozambique developed by one of our members, Novozymes. This project is an integrated agro-forestry project that produces cassava for ethanol production in the rural area near the Port of Beira, and then that ethanol gets shipped by boat down to the capital where the ethanol is used in the cooking fuel market to displace charcoal. The integrated forestry part of the project is that the cassava is surrounded by fruit and oil seed trees. The fruit can be eaten or sold, the oil trees produce oil for local energy production and there’s residue that can be used for biogas.

A western woman pitches for Africa
Well, I’m six foot tall and blonde. It’s a benefit because it helps you to stand out and be readily identified in an industry dominated by men. I go to a conference and everybody knows who I am already, which when you’re trying to create an organization from scratch is an enormous benefit. I love Africa. I’ve been to a dozen African countries and I have never had a bad experience.

Chalk up an early success
In 2009 we put on what was at that point and probably still is the largest bioenergy conference on African soil, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There were 250 people and we were very proud to have the prime minister open the conference for us.

Mundo-B Cafe (left), Meghan Sapp (right)

The buzz in the office
Our office is in a building called Mundo-B. (A project launched by several NGOs who renovated a building to create a sustainable office space that includes a garden and free trade organic café.) Our office is located in a room they call “the hive.” It’s like an incubator for environmental NGOs so there’s 20 desks with one or two desks for every organization. The idea is that these smaller organizations can interact and share ideas.

A special memento
We do have a “thank you” certificate from the Ethiopian Ministry of Energy that we worked with on the 2009 conference. It’s framed.

A green energy proponent who has to fly
I feel horrible about it. The hope is that as a result of our work there will be enough renewable energy produced to offset that, although that is a far-off hope. When airlines offer carbon offsets, we do that. Also, and this is separate from my work with PANGEA, I am on the board of experts for Biojet International, which is working on biofuels for airlines.

On the food vs. fuel debate
There is absolutely no need for food and fuel competition. It should always be food and fuel co-production. Sub-Saharan Africa uses only 11 percent of the arable land. Existing agriculture in most places has extremely low yields; the opportunity is there to increase the yields just by using improved agriculture practices. There are also all these small integrated systems that can be replicated on a larger scale. Cassava is a perfect example. Anyone can grow cassava. And it doesn’t take much to go from a couple of tubers to 5 tons an acre, and, boom, you now have ethanol for the community to be cooking with, or ethanol to run a generator so your kids can study at night, or now you can properly refrigerate vaccines in your medical clinic. We’re very much focused on trying to create and trying to get companies to implement these local systems.

Africa is not Brazil
The great misnomer, especially in 2008-09, was all about large-scale biofuel production in Africa for export to Europe. That doesn’t work. In Brazil, they can do large-scale, efficient, economy-of-scale agriculture. But that’s because in Brazil families own vast quantities of land. In Africa, it’s not like that. The government owns the land and then divides it up and communities have rights to use it, or families have rights to use it, or they can give those rights to companies. So, you’re either in a position of working with 20,000 individual farmers, which no bank will fund because they’re worried about feedstock security. Or you find a different way of doing business. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Can those obstacles be overcome?
Absolutely. That’s what we mean by creating different ways of doing business. You can create farmer cooperatives and then give – business people hate it when you say give but this is how you make things work – you give 10 percent of the shares of the company to those farmer co-ops, and that’s how you secure your feedstocks. It’s creating inclusive business models. You can’t buy or rent 40,000 hectares in most places, but that’s probably a good thing because there’s people living on that land and you don’t want the cost or controversy of relocating them. Far better that you get them to grow for you and grow with you.

 

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