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Italian oil and gas company Eni is not delivering on its plan to produce thousands of tonnes of biofuel crops, according to a new report by clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) in collaboration with The Continent newspaper.

In its report From Farm to Fuel: Inside Eni’s African biofuels gamble published on 24 February, T&E questioned the company’s plan to scale up biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas.

Eni had promised to create a new supply chain of “sustainable oils” from agricultural crops and had set up partnerships with six African countries to develop ‘agri-hubs’ that would supply vegetable oil for its refineries, the report said.

The company had said the main focus of the initiative would be castor, a crop that was drought-resistant and suitable for planting on poor quality land.

In Kenya alone, Eni said it aimed to enrol 400,000 farmers to produce up to 200,000 tonnes/year by 2027.

However, in the two countries where the projects were most advanced – Kenya and the Republic of the Congo – the company was significantly underproducing, according to on-the-ground interviews with farmers and other key stakeholders reported by T&E.

Data analysis in Kenya showed that Eni had failed to reach even a quarter of its 2023 production targets, while, in the Republic of the Congo, Eni’s projects had remained at the pilot stage for more than 18 months.

“This is the first time an oil company has got into the business of farming crops for fuel and represents a major attempt to scale up biofuels production,” oil program lead at T&E oil programme lead Agathe Bounfour said.

“The evidence from Kenya and the Republic of the Congo suggests that this miracle new energy source being pushed by Eni will not bring development to Africa, nor is it a solution for Europe’s energy needs. Growing drought-resistant energy crops on arid lands sounds too good to be true. That’s because it is.”

According to testimonies from Kenyan farmers collected by T&E, Eni had sub-contracted a complex network of brokers and cooperatives, leading to inefficiencies and disappointment for thousands of small-scale farmers who did not receive adequate support or revenue. Additionally, the worst drought in 40 years had severely affected harvests.

In the Republic of the Congo, Eni is taking a different approach by working with large agribusinesses rather being reliant on small-scale farming, according to the report.

Difficulties in adapting seed varieties to local conditions meant projects had not started, T&E wrote.

Despite this, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which invests public funds on behalf of the World Bank into private sector-led development projects, is considering making a US$210M loan to Eni Kenya to develop more agri-hubs in the country, according to the report.

At the time of publication, the IFC told T&E that a decision about the project had not been made.

Meanwhile, Eni continues to invest in oil and gas in the region and has earmarked €25bn (US$27bn) to explore and develop new oil and gas projects globally, as well as maintain existing fields, while planning to invest less than €3.4bn (US$3.6bn) in biofuels, according to the report.

In response to T&E’s questions, Eni denied that it had under-delivered on one of its flagship green projects and highlighted expected “improvements on agricultural yields” with the introduction of new plant varieties.