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Project Story: Africa

Project objective: conduct research and development of an ethanol-based product (gelfuel) into a low-cost, renewable, clean and safe household cooking fuel for production and marketing in Sub-Saharan Africa

Roughly two thirds of African households, more than 350 million people, depend on burning woodfuels for their daily cooking. Not only is this practice unsustainable under prevailing land and forestry resource use patterns, but burning woodfuels in poorly ventilated spaces poses a serious health hazard for women who prepare meals and their children.

“As population continues to grow across Africa, pressure on existing forest resources will also increase due to the clearing of land for agriculture, and higher demand for wood and non-wood forest products and woodfuels,” says Boris E. Utria, Manager of the Regional Program for the Traditional Energy Sector (RPTES) of the Africa Energy Unit (AFTEG) of the World Bank. With woodfuel supplies diminishing and petroleum fuels prices expected to escalate, there is an urgent need to invest in the development of alternative low cost and renewable household fuels for Africa.               


It is against that backdrop that RPTES, with support from the Development Markeplace 2000 (DM2000), teamed-up with a small Zimbabwean company (MGC) to launch the “Millennium Gelfuel Initiative (MGI).” The project was financed through a $130,000 DM award, with MGC supplying an additional $100,000 and RPTES contributing $50,000.

The objectives of the initiative were to re-engineer MGC’s “Greenheat Gelfuel” into a renewable, low cost, safe and clean household cooking fuel; to reduced its production, packaging and marketing costs; to design appropriate stoves for it; to assess its commercial viability in several representative African household energy markets; and, to identify potential follow-up investment projects.

US$130,000 DM2000 Winner:
Millennium Gelfuel: A Renewable 
Low-cost Cooking Fuel


Gelfuel is based on biomass ethanol alcohol, which is produced through the fermentation and distillation of sugar cane, sweet sorghum, or other agricultural crops. As such, it is 100 percent organic and can be locally produced in most countries in Africa. “The DM2000 enabled us to combine our knowledge of the household energy sector and our field contacts in many countries across Africa with the ingenuity and drive of the private sector in a win-win formula,” explains Utria.        

The use of gelified and solidified liquid fuels (ethanol alcohol or kerosene) has been in practice as early as World War II, when soldiers used it to cook with. More recently, variations of Gelfuel have been produced in small volumes in several countries for up-scale recreational and catering applications.     

Joint private sector initiative between 
the Millenium Gelfuel Co. in Zimbabwe and Regional Program for the Traditional Energy Sector (RPTES) of the Africa Energy Unit (AFTEG) in the World Bank

“The real driver behind the MGI,” explains Utria, “is the possibility to scale up production of Gelfuel as a renewable and fully competitive household fuel in Africa that offers the consumer a much safer and cleaner energy product and service.” Other tangible benefits include generating large economic growth opportunities in the rural areas, creating significant rural employment, providing for ecosystem rehabilitation over large tracks of land, and reducing oil import expenditures.

After 12 months of work on the initiative concrete and encouraging results have been achieved. Experimentation with the Millennium Gelfuel’s combustion and energy efficiency, and improvements in its production process and packaging systems, have resulted in more than a 50 percent reduction of its final cost to consumers. Appropriate low-cost high efficiency stoves have been developed specifically for the Gelfuel, and a Gelfuel burner has been designed which can be retrofitted into more than 15 traditional African cooking stoves.

Consumer tests and marketing assessments conducted in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, and Zimbabwe have overwhelmingly affirmed the appeal and potential commercial viability of the Gelfuel. More than 15 African and 2 Latin American countries have expressed interest in introducing the local production and marketing of the Gelfuel, and concrete private sector driven Millennium Gelfuel investment projects are being prepared in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. 

To date, the project team has managed to establish the technical, economic, and market viability of Millennium Gelfuel as a household cooking fuel in Africa. The challenge now is scaling up its production to the levels required by the markets. Current annual production of biomass ethanol in Africa is 500 million liters. Supplying just 30 percent of the African household market would require over 10 billion liters of alcohol per year, and would require some US $10 to $15 billion of new investments. 

“While this is a tall order,” Utria insists, remembering his days in Brazil working on the PROALCOOL Program in the late 70’s, “all the elements are in hand. Africa has the necessary land and labor to do it, and desperately needs the economic growth, the employment, and the energy that would result from it. Being commercially viable and profitable, it is expected that the private sector, supported with the right mix of government policy and financial instruments – including Climate Change financing from the Clean Development Mechanisms—will gradually find its way into this new industry. We can also play a key role in accelerating the development of this new industry through the financing of rural infrastructure assets and services, rural energy, capacity development programs and, of course, policy support.”

Bank project advisor, Boris Utria, said, “There is no two ways about it, without DM2000 funding and political support’ we would have not been able to accomplish what we have accomplished. . . . [it is a] concrete example of the validity of the DM mechanism !!”
According to Utria, the development of a large scale and renewable biomass ethanol alcohol industry in Africa for Gelfuel and other energy applications, and the full exploitation of its many byproducts, including fertilizers, has the potential to become a sustainable economic and rural development “engine” and to bring about a new era of energy self-sufficiency for the region. 

-Sheila Kinkade


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Last Updated: July 11, 2005

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