Africa has great potential to produce Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) but also has a number of challenges
Africa is the second-largest continent by land mass, measuring approximately 11.7 million square miles (30.4 million square km). With some of the longest distances between cities, aviation is the key to efficiently moving people and goods within the continent, writes Simple Flying.
However, there is a need to decarbonize the air transport industry, which has been a priority for many airlines, governments, and African aviation stakeholders. While several initiatives are being implemented, using Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) has been identified as the most significant solution to reducing Carbon emissions in aviation by 2050.
The potential of SAF production in the continent
Given its vast land mass and availability of feedstock, the continent has the potential to produce Sustainable Aviation Fuels on a major scale. According to a 2022 report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africa alone has the immediate technical potential to produce 3.2 billion litres of SAF annually, following the strictest sustainability requirements.
This can be boosted to about 4.5 billion litres by incorporating green hydrogen into the production process, replacing conventional jet fuel domestically up to a maximum blending threshold of 1.2 billion litres annually while reserving nearly 3.3 billion litres for export.
However, considering the land required for SAF production, questions have been raised over its effects on the food supply. Speaking at the recent African Aviation Sustainability Conference (AASC) in Johannesburg, Chemical Engineer and Sustainability Expert Farai Chireshe noted that there is still a significant potential to grow energy crops in the Sub-Saharan region while staying within the ecological boundaries.
“We, as WWF, have looked into the potential of growing energy crops in the Sub-Saharan African context, looking at leaving land for future energy, food, and feed, also taking into account biodiversity issues. We found that there’s a significant potential for the African continent to grow energy crops while staying within those ecological boundaries.”
Potential feedstock in different regions
The production of SAF in the continent is not only limited to energy crops but can also incorporate waste and residues from other regions and industries. For example, the South African sugar industry has been forced to dispose of tonnes of sugarcane annually due to the reduction of milling capacity. This can potentially be used to produce Sustainable Aviation Fuel to power aircraft.
Furthermore, in the Western Cape and other regions in South Africa, there are many invasive alien plants (non-indigenous water-thirsty trees) that threaten biodiversity and water security. While steps are being taken to clear these plants, they are a potential feedstock for SAF production, which does not threaten food security and improves biodiversity in the region.
It is essential to divide the continent into various subregions. Each region has different feedstock and its own potential for producing SAF. In other countries like Kenya, used cooking oil has been a great feedstock, which also helps with waste management.
An African Sustainable Aviation Fuel market also has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, providing new opportunities for farmers, truck drivers, engineers, technicians, etc. Furthermore, it will make African states less reliant on imported fuels, contributing to the direct growth of economies and improving the trade balance.
Assessing the challenges and risks in Africa
While the feedstock is available, several issues must be addressed before African stakeholders can tap into the Sustainable Aviation Fuel market. As an emerging market with unique challenges, there have been calls for Africa to develop a sustainability roadmap that suits the market’s structure.
One of the biggest challenges is the cost implication. Additionally, Africa lacks sufficient technology to venture into SAF production immediately. Aviation Environment Expert and Jet Fuel Analyst Susan Nambusi said at AASC,
“I believe Sustainable Aviation Fuels are part of the solution. Right now, they look like a problem because we have many challenges in terms of just getting to fruition, and the cost aspect is the biggest fix. The good thing is it’s not a new concept. There are people who are doing it elsewhere, and if we start as well, then we will avoid a lot of mistakes.”
“However, the main challenge is that there is very little technology. We are expected as a region to join hands in making sustainable aviation fuels a reality, but the technology does not lie with us; it lies somewhere else. SAF is a solution in the long run, but at the moment, we have enough issues that need to be tackled before we get this to a reality.”
Lastly, the lack of regulatory frameworks and conclusive data on carbon emissions also stalls the progress of low-carbon fuel development. Regarding the involvement of airlines in the use of SAF, African carriers are focused on survivability and ensuring economic sustainability before they can focus on the environmental aspects. In the meantime, airlines in the continent are working on more achievable measures to reduce their carbon footprint without risking their operational and economic stability.
However, 2023 has seen a few examples of the successful use of SAF in Africa. In May, Kenya Airways operated its most sustainable flight between Nairobi and Amsterdam, providing valuable insights into the future development and use of low-carbon fuels in Africa. Similarly, in April, Ethiopian Airlines took delivery of its 20th Airbus A350 with 30% blend SAF.