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Seeds for a new energy, from Italy to Africa

Eni's agro-energy research continues to provide sustainable solutions through the use of innovative technologies and thanks to some training initiatives agreed with IRENA, to promote our know-how internationally.

by Alessandra Pierro
24 November 2022
9 min read
by Alessandra Pierro
24 November 2022
9 min read

The development of renewable energy, bioenergy and biofuels play a key role in the energy transition path. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 - the goal of Eni’s strategy - it is necessary to develop increasingly sustainable products and to increase the use of technologies that produce cleaner energy.

From a broad perspective, this also means creating opportunities for emerging markets and developing economies, especially in countries such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Eni continues to consolidate its relationships with local stakeholders. 

Energy as a source of development for emerging markets

Along these lines, starting in 2021, several initiatives have been launched to develop the sustainable and high-quality biofuel chain in several African countries.

Among the initiatives in this context are the agreements made with IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) to increase the expertise of African national institutions operating in the biofuel sector. In particular, the Capacity Building training initiative for the agribusiness is the first ever in this field aimed at institutional stakeholders from African countries.

delegazione in visita alla bioraffineria di Marghera

Delegation visiting the laboratories of Eni

Sustainable crops for biofuel production in Kenya

To date, the most advanced projects of this kind include  Kenya, where about 70% of the population works in agriculture in a socio-economic context where small farmers have little access to the market. The projects that have been launched there also aim to support local farmers by generating income from agriculture and by promoting more efficient farming methods and the regeneration of degraded land to be used to grow crops for bio-refining.

It is a long-term project aimed at developing a network of agri-hubs for the production of vegetable oils, the so-called agri-feedstocks, from agricultural and agro-industrial chains. It promotes the cultivation of oil crops in areas that have become degraded due to phenomena such as drought and soil impoverishment, agricultural rotations and associations, the recovery of agricultural by-products and agro-industrial waste or the valorisation of spontaneous productions in wooded areas. In line with the sustainability certifications recognised by European directives, the development of these agricultural chains does not compete with the food chain and does not affect forest resources. Careful monitoring of the socio-economic impact and of the impact on health and more generally on rights makes it possible to highlight and enhance the positive impacts in terms of income creation and stabilisation, regeneration of degraded rural areas, creation of new professional skills and new jobs.

Eni opens the first agri-hub in Kenya

The first agri-hub in Kenya was inaugurated in July 2022 in Makueni County, just one year after the signing of agreements with the Kenyan Republic. This is where the pressing of castor, croton and cotton seeds takes place, and the first cargo loaded with vegetable oil bound for the Gela bio-refinery left in October. It started with a production of 2,500 tonnes by the end of 2022, which will quickly rise to 20,000 tonnes in 2023. In addition to this, collected waste and residues, including used vegetable oils, are expected to reach 5,000 tonnes in 2023. The initiative in Kenya involves building more agri-hubs. In addition to the first 15,000-tonne agri-hub which started up in July 2022 and is already in operation, a second one will be built as early as 2023.  In line with our business plan, we plan to produce approximately 200,000 tonnes of vegetable oils per year for our bio-refineries from 2026 and for the following years.

Agri-hubs will also produce animal feed obtained from the protein component of seeds, which will benefit livestock breeding and food production, and soil improvers, thereby contributing to food security. The initiative also promotes soil regeneration, also through improved agronomical practices and carbon farming, for the benefit of agricultural production in general.

The future impact on the socio-economic conditions of rural populations living in marginalisation is considerable, with significant spin-offs in terms of income generation: it is estimated that by 2030 up to 200,000 families in Kenya and in the African continent as a whole about one million families could benefit from this. To this we must add a positive impact on employment both for the technical staff of the agri-hubs and for the entire network of services (extension services) for farmers, from mechanisation to the provision of agronomic inputs. 

Africa’s central role in the strategic plan

We are investing in agri-feedstock initiatives also in Congo where, following the signing of an agreement with the government, we started cultivating castor beans on abandoned and degraded farmland with large farms and rural communities in 2022. From 2023, we will also build the first agri-hub there with a capacity of 30,000 tonnes per year, which will also produce soil improvers for local farmers.

In addition to Kenya and Congo, Eni has signed agreements with several other African countries, such as Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Benin for initiatives or feasibility studies on the supply chain.

Agro-energy research starts from Sardinia

This development model entails a major commitment to research and development: one of the key points is to make the best agronomic inputs available to farmers, starting with seeds. They will be replicated in several African countries. The heart of the seed improvement programme is in Sardinia. With Eni’s contribution, the island is beginning to take a leading role in the development of an experimental model that we are also implementing in Congo, Mozambique, Angola and Rwanda.

In the open air Agri-Energy laboratory in Marrubiu (Oristano) - the result of a joint venture between Eni and Bonifiche Ferraresi - since last year, we have been developing drought-resistant crops that do not compete with food production. In about fifteen hectares of land, thanks to cutting-edge technology and precision tools, we are working on low-carbon production methods and innovative solutions to improve yields, testing the best crops for the development of biofuels. 

The path to energy transition does not end here

As the energy transition process advances on a global scale, Eni is taking yet another step towards its goal of terminating the supply of palm oil used to produce biofuel in the Venice and Gela bio-refineries starting from October 2022, earlier in respect of the national regulatory requirements for fuel blending.

Today, 85% of Eni's bio-refineries are fuelled by waste raw materials from used cooking oil, animal fats and other biomass, which allows us to produce HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil), biofuels capable of reducing CO2 emissions, depending on the amount of agri-feedstock derived used,  by between 60 and 90% (calculated over the entire life cycle) compared to the reference fossil mix.

In order to promote sustainable production, Eni has also announced it is considering building a third bio-refinery on its Livorno industrial site. This could take place by 2025 and maximise synergies with the infrastructure already available, offering the site a productive future once again.

Regarding agri-feedstocks, in addition to Africa, Eni looks with interest at possible developments in Italy, where these initiatives aim “to offer marginal areas, such as contaminated or degraded areas,  promoting rural development and integration with the energy industry that supports the decarbonization of transport”. (quote by Claudio Descalzi, Eni’s CEO).

The agreement involves an initial research phase to assess the sustainability and competitiveness of an agri-industrial chain to be jointly developed that aims to recover marginal areas identified in the country by developing sustainable farming practices. In the first months of 2023, a pilot phase will be launched to cultivate seeds, such as safflower and brassica, from which vegetable oil will be extracted and then supplied to Eni’s bio-refineries to be transformed into biofuels. The seeds can be grown on farms directly owned by Bonifiche Ferraresi, as well as in consortia, cooperatives and professional organisations located throughout the region that can form a network with Bonifiche Ferraresi and Eni. Farmers will also have the support of partners to introduce innovative practices, from precision farming to carbon farming, to reduce emissions and waste in the various phases of  production.

The aim is thus to create a new business model that, on the one hand, offers opportunities to regenerate the farmers’ marginal land by creating economic opportunities and, on the other, introduces state-of-the-art techniques and processes to help reduce CO2 emissions in agriculture and transport.

The author: Alessandra Pierro

A degree in Philosophy, she is a freelance copyeditor and content curator.