AFRICA NA Market
Jatropha – the miracle plant?
• It is a survivor - very durable • CO2 neutral • Perennial tree, found in the tropics • Widely present in Africa since the
16th century • Provides its first crop 2 years after
planting • Investment rewarded with at least
40 years’ cropping life • Lifespan is more than 50 years • Husks and shells are traditionally
used for fertiliser, and now for fuel
in thinly populated areas and with labourintensive plantations, many people are needed for harvesting and maintenance.
Each hectare needs a minimum of two to three people, so farming a plantation of 50,000 hectares would need 150,000 people. Bringing in seasonal workers for these numbers would be no small task, and so over time, mechanisation of the industry is expected. One organisation that is attempting to produce biodiesel from jatropha on an industrial scale, and also to create rural jobs with manual harvesting, is the Dutch-backed Mali Biocarburant. It is ahead of other companies in the race to produce fuel from jatropha because it is not relying on new plantations to source its raw material. Instead it buys jatropha nuts already available from the roughly 20,000 km of jatropha fences crisscrossing Mali that are used by farmers to protect other crops and stop soil erosion.
The firm is also giving farmers seeds to increase crop output for the future. If this business model works out, “it will be really revolutionary for Africa,” says the financier and chief executive of the firm, Hugo Verkuijl. For Mali, biofuels are not new. In order to tackle its triple handicap
• Jatropha oil is traditionally used to
make soap, and now for biofuel • Oil is non-edible • Technical specifications of Jatropha oil
are excellent • Can be used as direct fuel (with
additives) in engines • Jatropha’s ability to grow on wasteland,
rather than requiring fertile land, has been lauded by environmentalists keen to limit the impact of other biofuels such as corn-derived ethanol
is produced, then the available supply of palm oil will eventually overcome demand for cooking oil, leaving oil not only for food production but also bringing down the price of the oil for both food and fuel. Crop waste can always be used for electricity production rather than being inefficiently burned. One must also be mindful of the reality, that much of the land in Africa is not being farmed. Even the lush coastal UEMOA countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Togo have only 2.3%, 11%, 6.9%, 0.24% and 2.11% respectively of their lands under cultivation. These striking figures show that the outcry over biofuel farming stealing food production sites is, to a degree, unfounded. Nevertheless, regulations and ombudsmen should be in place to ensure that local populations have ample food whilst meeting their energy needs.
of poverty, lack of seaport access, and no domestic fossil fuel production, jatropha has been cultivated since 1987 and ethanol has been used since 1983 to fuel trucks. Processing jatropha nut oil into biofuel does not require advanced technology. So rather than setting up large plantations, Mali Biocarburant is promoting jatropha as a means of diversification for farmers, alongside millet, sorghum or maize.
Food versus fuel At the bioenergy conference in Accra, Meghan Sapp, secretary general of Partners for Euro-African Green Energy (PANGEA), defended the use of African arable land for fuel production, pointing the finger at significant, long-term underinvestment in agriculture as a main cause of the continent’s food insecurity. That, tied with poor market access and often non-existent infrastructure, has kept Africa on its knees. Bioenergy production, she said, offered a key to help reverse this decades-long trend.
The problem of food production conflicting with fuel can be eliminated through growing food-based energy crops. For example, if more and more palm oil
There is no reason why food and fuel cannot thrive side by side in the very same field or be produced simultaneously from the same crop using modern processing technologies. While many of Africa’s economies rely upon the export of basic commodities, processing crops into food and fuel domestically ensures that value addition stays at home, rather than being exported to developed countries.
Jatropha’s ability to grow on wasteland has been lauded by environmentalists STOP AIDS
On the final day of the conference, a site visit was made to a jatropha plantation where aubergines, chilli peppers, and peanuts are grown as perfect intercroppers alongside jatropha. Intercropping helps boost cash flow and when done with leguminous crops like peanut, the nitrogen fixation becomes beneficial for jatropha growth and weed control, while improving soil quality overall. Also in that same holding, the farmer was growing onions too, just to diversify the land use and provide onions to the local market.
The next Green Power Bioenergy Markets Symposium will be held in Maputo, Mozambique, over 23-26 February 2010. With several national institutions already in place supporting bioenergy, Mozambique is one of the most developed biofuels and advanced jatropha markets in Africa. Its land zoning initiative might be one of the pathways to ensure sufficient food production. Now is the time to learn best practices from one another and implement sustainable solutions that allow African rural economies to grow. gNA
58 | New African December 2009