Ethiopia: In Search for Power, Ethiopia Turns to Growing Sugar

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — Eating and drinking in Ethiopia involves a lot of sugar, from the quintessentially Ethiopian buna (coffee) ceremony to the fare in pastry shops. But it’s expensive to import.

Now the government has embarked on an ambitious project to grow more sugar to meet that demand – but also to boost electrical production and to create sugar-based ethanol that could help reduce car emissions and cut down on fossil fuel imports.

Ethiopia currently produces about 300,000 tonnes of sugar a year from three factories, at Wonchi, Metehera and Finchaa. The factories also generate 62 megawatts (MW) of electricity, half of which is used by the sugar plants themselves, with the rest sent to the national electric grid.

Gossaye Mengiste, an official at the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy, says Ethiopia has the potential to produce 600 MW of energy from sugar when 13 additional factories now being built start production – a considerable boost to the country’s national electricity output.


Altogether, Ethiopia aims to generate up to 8,000 MW of additional energy by the end of the next year, more than quadrupling its current 2,200 MW. Most of the energy will come from hydropower and wind – but waste energy, geothermal and co-generation from sugar plants are all part of the strategy.

The government, facing a shortage of at least 200,000 tonnes of sugar a year, as well as persistent electricity cuts and rising pollution from its busy streets, sees growth in sugar as a cost-effective, environmental friendly answer.

Ethiopia is working to build a climate-resilient green economy and aiming for a net carbon output of zero by 2025. Reducing emissions from cars, a big source of greenhouse gases, is a key part of that, Mengiste said.

Another economic goal is to become a middle-income country by 2025, which depends on the government keeping the economy growing at what it claims has been an annual growth rate of 10 percent a year over the past decade.

The government has focused on increasing use of ethanol, a byproduct of sugar, as a source of electricity because it’s relatively cost effective and doesn’t require a dedicated factory, so it can act as a supplementary energy source when needed.


Sugar plantations, however, need large tracts of lands. The question of land availability in lowland areas – most of which are occupied by pastoralists who occupy 60 percent of the country’s land but account for only 11 percent of its population – may be a difficult one.

Zemdekun Tekle, corporate communications director at the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, the state entity that handles all sugar projects, says the current projects benefit both local people and the country as a whole.

Planting sugar has created employment for local people and pushed pastoralists into settling, he said. He pointed to the Omo Valley where local people produce maize and have been provided with health clinics, schools and saw mills.

In the area, “graduates are learning practical skills with the sugar industry, becoming a skilled workforce and eventually becoming innovators themselves,” Tekle said.

Another benefit from the sugar project is that it produces high-quality cattle feed as a byproduct, helping the country’s large livestock sector which had previously been hampered by lack of good cattle feed, the Sugar Corporation noted.

But critics aren’t convinced of the merits of the scheme, saying efforts to expand sugar production are based on a condescending plan drawn up mainly by people living in highland areas but affecting the lowland population.

Groups like Survival International and other minority rights bodies have urged potential donors to shy away from such projects, which they allege destroy pastoralist populations. Tekle admitted that such lobbying has reduced the range of Ethiopia’s funding partners.


But emerging economies such as India and China have already opened their wallets, he said, noting that the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqianq in May coincided with a $500 million loan funding agreement for one such project – the Welkayit sugar factory.

In highland Addis Ababa, a bustling metropolis of more than three million people, however, businesspeople and residents alike are more concerned with finding sugar for their daily needs at an affordable price.

One such person is Tsehay Gebremeskel, who has owned and run a small café in the capital for more than 20 years.

“I use sugar for the tea, coffee, milk, pastry and juices I serve to my customers, but I’m having difficulty finding sugar regularly from the government shop for a price of 1550 birr ($78) per quintal,” she said. The cost of sugar is eating into her profits, from which she pays her employees and bills for the café and covers her home expenses.

The government plans to meet the sugar shortage by opening seven new sugar-processing plants by the end of next year, which will raise the country’s production capacity from 300,000 tonnes to1.2 million tones a year. The plants will require 348,000 hectares of land, the government says.

The government estimates national sugar demand at about 650,000 tonnes a year, with current shortfalls made up by imports from Thailand and Dubai. But with added sugar-growing capacity in place by 2015, Ethiopia aims to export some 550,000 tonnes, giving it earnings projected at $300 million by the end of next year.

E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.