The 'biofuel complex' and the emerging political economy of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa

The last five years have seen a rapid expansion in the cultivation of crops for biofuels. Governments from the global North are keen to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for reasons both of climate change and energy security, whilst governments in the global South hope that agrarian change will play a key role in economic growth and rural development. Biofuels also represent a new profitability frontier for transnational corporations and investment funds, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where land and labour costs are relatively low. The emerging ‘biofuel complex’ of governments, biotechnology firms and transnational capital is creating a new agrarian political economy in Africa. Of particular interest is the process of land acquisition, whereby foreign states, corporations and funds make large-scale acquisitions of farmland.

Whilst much has been written on ‘land grabbing’, there is a dearth of empirical research on the underlying political, economic and ecological dynamics of the ‘biofuel complex’. My research, building on my work on the impact of French colonial policy on the political economy of agriculture in Francophone Africa, will address these questions by focusing on West Africa, with particular emphasis on Senegal. This case study offers the opportunity to study emerging agrarian political economies that differ markedly from previous colonial and postcolonial food regimes.??I will draw on empirical data gathered through qualitative interviews, the analysis of policy documents, as well as quantitative socio-economic and ecological research in rural areas. My research will contribute to academic debates in the social sciences about global political economy and agrarian change, as well as policy debates about sustainable development and rural poverty alleviation.


Ivan Scales is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2012.

He is a college lecturer in Human Geography and a Fellow of St Catharine's College. He was awarded his PhD in Geography in 2008.   His publications include Farming at the forest frontier: Land use and landscape change in western Madagascar, 1896 to 2005  and Value Plurality among Conservation Professional, Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739 (Sandbrook, C., Scales, I.R., Vira, B. and Adams, W.M. 2011.


As a geographer specialising in environment and development issues, he is interested in how people interact with the environment. These interactions can be at different spatial levels (from individuals through to households, communities and societies) and can take many forms (economic, political, cultural).


Tel: +44 1223 766886