Energy needs for traditional agriculture


Traditional agriculture is engaged in an unwritten « contract » with its socio-economic environment: to ensure the producer’s own subsistence and generate production surpluses that allow exchanges with other branches of economic activity. It may be noted in passing that the term agriculture in developed economies applies to a much broader range of activities than in most countries of the South, which still continue to manage the various primary productions separately: agricultural holdings, livestock, fisheries, forestry, etc. Not that the integration or combination of these activities is not increasingly occurring among the same operators. But from a technical and cultural point of view1, rural societies, universally characterized by their aversion to rupture, have had to patiently secrete such specializations as a price for their balance in the physical, economic and historical environment. National government institutions have thus had to adapt more to traditional rural systems than the opposite.

African rural malaise today

In any case, in sub-Saharan African countries where rural people still often represent a large majority of the population, it is becoming increasingly difficult for traditional agriculture to succeed in the « interbranch social contract » mentioned above. This is due, among other things, to the convergence of a range of contemporary phenomena, including:

  • he growing technological imbalance between the continent’s cities and countryside, and between the North and South of the planet;
  • the increasing monetarisation of the economy, including in the most remote areas of the world, with an increasing flow of international trade;
  • and the rapid expansion of urbanization without real control, eroding rural areas and their material production base, and spreading increasingly extroverted lifestyles (which, for many developing countries, means greater vulnerability to the influence of imported articles and technologies).

It is tempting, in these times when the defence of the environment is a mobilizing theme for very large institutions throughout the world, to sacrifice to a certain neo-Rousseauist imagery urging the black continent to flee the model of industrial civilization in favour of a supposed agrarian humanism of the past millennia. But the evocation of the preceding phenomena makes it impossible to validate this thesis: Africa has an obligation to contribute to the construction and use of the collective edifice of human genius, under the same conditions of dignity and responsibility as the other regions and peoples of the world. In this perspective, upgrading rural Africa is a key objective.

Energy challenges to be addressed

To increase its production, develop its economic competitiveness and improve its own living environment, the traditional African peasant must first « energize » himself, i.e. acquire appropriate energy resources, techniques and behaviours. The specific rural energy needs to produce and promote a productive environment mainly concern:

  • The heat required to dry or cook food, forge or repair farm implements, heat or grill various substances and objects. The energy required to do this is no longer simply obtained from firewood or charcoal, which was collected yesterday by the housewife or craftsman behind the family enclosure. Wood fuels now represent a real commercial good, collected massively hours or even days after the village’s march. Over the decades, the use of manure from large livestock (cattle or camels) or certain agricultural residues (straw, stems and other shells) as fuel has shifted from exclusive use for isolated populations (in the case of nomadic herders in the Sahara or the Sahel) to the status of an ordinary alternative for sedentary rural or semi-urban communities.
  • Cold: Refrigeration and freezing are probably among the most relevant and attractive energy applications for people living in hot countries, both for their domestic and professional needs. Tropical conditions make it difficult to store seasonal and perishable foodstuffs. To cool water or store various products in a cool place, primitive refrigerators are used here, based on the natural evaporation of the water soaking into their walls. At best, the goatskin outre or the metal canister wrapped in damp cloth provides a temperature drop of about ten degrees Celsius. As for natural ice, the only opportunities for the sub-Saharan villager to see and touch it are hailstorms, which are very rare, dreaded and fascinating. However, modern day trading requirements increasingly require the use of significant amounts of artificial cooling. Artisanal fishing to supply developing urban markets and small-scale food trade (drinks, creams, etc.) are among the first sectors to require ice. This is followed by breeding, for the production of milk and eggs, as well as the storage of veterinary drugs and vaccines.
  • Climate comfort: The traditional rural building is characterized by its relative spontaneity and dispersion. All traditional societies are designed and applied certain practical rules of passive climate, adapted to their local conditions. However, due to general population growth and the contraction of the unitary space of housing and work, eco-climatic architecture is experiencing a more or less marked decline, often more for reasons of resistance, functionality or aesthetic fashion than for reasons of economy or physical availability: local rustic materials are disappearing in front of industrial building elements, shapes and dimensions are in line with standards defended by recent construction and equipment corporations. At the new level, there is a new need: cement, iron and glass, while chasing away the fragile banco and putrescible wood, sooner or later invite forced ventilation, while waiting for active air conditioning or artificial humidification.
  • Mechanical energy for working the land, transporting people or objects, drawing or pumping water, beating or grinding cereals, etc. is still measured exclusively in terms of the number of days or, incidentally, hours of driving in many peasant farms or rural African workshops. Because of their archaism, several manual tools and techniques here only allow significantly lower performances than those observed elsewhere with similar elements. The identification of rural workers, especially women, with their muscle power alone leads to alienating immobilization and undervaluing the enormous creative potential of the available workforce.
  • Electricity: Currently limited to lighting, radio and television, rural electricity consumption tends to spread in some areas to supply light agricultural equipment (electric pumps, mills, huskers, portable sprayers, etc.). The scope of applications depends largely on the rural electrification rate of each country.

How to transform the rural energy landscape

Energy strategies and policies to support sustainable rural development can be based on the following 3 axes:

  1. Promotion of the rational use of traditional energy sources and technologies;
  2. Facilitating farmers’ access to modern energy;
  3. Integration of energy production with a view to increasing local added value.

Policies reflecting the implementation of these energy strategies will be based on the following groups of actions:

Mobilize the local potential of traditional energy resources and improve related technologies.

Rural populations should benefit from the support of States and their other partners to control rational management of local wood resources: control of areas and methods of felling trees, improvement of carbonization techniques, rationalization of the transport and sale of firewood, charcoal, etc.

There is also a need to develop the national draught livestock park in the breeding areas, which includes the systematization of intensive breeding and training of certain species as well as the organization of related trades (harness maker, farrier, etc.). Improved natural drying and bio-conservation of agricultural products should be encouraged as a waiting solution in areas with high seasonal production in the case of certain fruits, vegetables and animal products (self-consumption and local markets).

Disseminate intermediate and modern energy systems

Simultaneously with the diffusion of improved wood and charcoal stoves, adapted carbonization wheels and animal traction systems replacing traditional manual equipment, the rural environment will benefit from domesticating other intermediate technologies, which have proven to be appropriate in contexts similar to those in Africa. Indeed, biogas digesters, wind turbines or pumping water turbines, solar electrification kits or microsystems, vegetable oil fuel engines and generators, artisanal and semi-industrial dryers, etc. can provide very valuable services to the rural operator.

In a growing number of countries, there are plans to use kerosene (already widely used for field lighting) or butane gas (which is much more recent) for cooking. However, these fuels will have to be affordable for distribution and equipment adapted to their use will have to be available. Disruptions in culinary habits may be coming, leading to a reduction in cooking times for food, or popular adaptation to pre-cooked or pre-frozen foods… at least for the use of certain urban layers.

The gradual mechanization and motorization of agricultural activities has been under way for decades in some African countries, often under the impetus of public or foreign companies targeting specific products. This is the case for the main speculations fuelling exports to Europe or America: cotton, cocoa, coffee, etc. However, a significant potential demand for power tillers, threshers, huskers, mills and other ginners is likely to materialize for a very large number of private farms and rural workshops. The technical dimensioning, financing and organisation of the operating mode of such equipment will have to be the subject of continuous analysis and monitoring, which organically involve public and private institutions operating in the rural development, small industry and energy sectors. rural electrification will have to be developed first as a tool to improve the living environment and then as a means of promoting production. The first few watts of the village will go, for obvious financial reasons, to social and cultural priorities: powering lamps, televisions, transistors, medical refrigerators. Seek energy-sustainable development linkages The farmer, as an individual farmer or cooperator, will be much better equipped to negotiate with his local and foreign economic partners if he can himself:

  • add value to its production, through elementary transformations, before bringing it to urban or extra-national markets,
  • and recycle the material and financial outputs of its production (waste recovery, reinvestment of equipment and training) into its general environment.

Depending on the areas, agricultural speculations and existing associative traditions, it will be relevant to adopt the following strategies:

  • create or strengthen artisanal or semi-industrial production units: fruit and vegetable canning factories, factories for dried meat, frozen fish, cereal or tuber flour, ginned textile fibres, etc…
  • assist producer organisations and rural operators in rationalising the collection, transport and distribution circuits for raw or semi-processed agricultural products; – and encourage the creation and development of economic interest groups for the recovery, treatment and reuse of plant and animal waste: farm biogas effluents, fuel briquettes.

All the transformations described here will obviously require concerted support actions in terms of training, credit organisation and communication.

Impact and challenges of agricultural energy production

In microeconomic terms, the expected impact of rural energy will include a combination of:

  • the increase in the level of water control, which in turn leads to the security of the farmer’s production and income;
  • increased control over the annual calendar of rural activities;
  • and the reduction of development inequalities between cities and the countryside as well as between provinces in the same country.

In macroeconomic terms, the energization of the countryside, by increasing agricultural production volumes, will improve the situation of all other major sectoral aggregates, including:

  • Industry: The development of agro-industry and agro-industry will stimulate internal trade between regions and between national producers.
  • employment: As a result of the permitted extension of the effective duration of the agricultural year, linked to better control of key production factors such as irrigation water and food storage capacity, a significant proportion of workers should be able to remain in or even return to the countryside.
  • Foreign trade: The extra-national trade balance may improve significantly as a result of national added value, with some specific benefits: For energy companies, huge markets are to be achieved. To take only the CILSS countries, the population coverage rates for electricity and gas do not yet reach the 20% threshold. This means that, for the companies concerned by these two products, it is not impossible to expect a virtual doubling or even tripling of their turnover in the medium term.

For village areas, the provision of energy and the recycling of industrial effluents will contribute to increasing the local biomass supply and stopping adverse environmental trends (regreening, removal of pollution). By creating micro poles of economic dynamism, rural energy will contribute to the decentralization process in most of the African countries concerned.

Finally, for African cities and developed countries on other continents, a major indirect effect resulting from rural energy will probably be the reduction of migration flows, which today pose crucial problems of urban planning, employment and diplomatic relations.


Beyond simple sectoral considerations, a multitude of national and external partners have converging interests in promoting the production and use of energy for the benefit of rural societies in Africa.

In support of rural households and businesses on the continent, public authorities and all development partners (cooperation agencies, financing institutions, NGOs, decentralized communities) should always take energy into account in the design and implementation of rural development programmes. economic, environmental and political challenges justify mobilizing resources to promote, at the local, national and global levels, through appropriate energy systems, the rapid emergence and consolidation of integrated rural activities that promote sustainable development.


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