Jatropha Curcas, once called the „wonder plant“ for biofuel production, has lost some of its mystique.
Photo: Prof. C. Becker, Uni-Hohenheim.

24.10.2012

The second meeting of the „Biofuels for development” network held in Bonn/Germany at the end of September and hosted jointly by GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) and GDI (German Development Institute) focussed on the Jatropha plant. The hype initially surrounding this biofuel plant seems to have been replaced by disillusionment. Scientists and experts exchanged their experience and took stock.

Formerly hailed as a „wonder plant“, Jatropha curcas appears to have lost most of its mystique. The time is not yet ripe for large-scale jatropha cropping for biofuel production. The participants attending the “Biofuel for development” network meeting at the end of September in Bonn all agreed on this. But the plant has not lost its fascination, and current developments regarding the need for biokerosene for aviation have brought Jatropha biofuel back on the agenda. The private sector also still has a high demand. The meeting’s participants addressed this issue and simultaneously analysed the significance and potential of the Jatropha plant in development cooperation. Another point on the agenda was the action necessary in development policy and agricultural research resulting from the research findings now on hand and experiences obtained to date.

Researchers and practitioners presented their findings and experiences. Professor K. Becker, Hohenheim University reported on some twenty years of research in cooperation with private sector companies on potential uses for Jatropha curcas. Sophia Baumert, Center for Development  Research, presented the results of her ongoing research work in Burkina Faso. The problems involved in large-scale land purchases for Jatropha cropping were explained by Friedel Hütz-Adams, researcher at the Institut Süd-Wind.  GIZ- staff member Raya Kühne presented GIZ’s experience with Jatropha in developing countries.

The conclusion drawn was surprisingly unanimous. The time is not yet ripe for large scale Jatropha cropping for export. The plants „good“ image was also revised. Research findings show that while Jatropha grows well on marginal locations, without inputs of fertiliser and water profitable yields cannot be obtained. It was also reported that hardly any breeding research has been carried out on Jatropha up to now, which means high yield fluctuations and uncertainties in planning. Scientists consider the plant’s toxicity to be an advantage in terms of food security in developing countries, as there then seems to be no competition with food crops.

However, practical cropping shows contrasting results: efforts to promote Jatropha and the anticipated high yields and profits have already lead to increased Jatropha growing on fertile soils, consequently driving out food crops. Jatropha is of very limited use to small farmers in developing countries because of the high expertise and skilled processing necessary before the poisonous Jatropha plant can be used for food or fodder.

Extending commercial Jatropha cropping seems to have been constrained for the time being due to the negative discussion surround the topic of „Land grabbing“, not least  because of the non-transparent approaches used by investors and state institutions regarding land purchase and land leasing. Many companies seem to have withdrawn from the market in order to avoid bad press. To date, only estimates are available about the amount of land leased or purchased in order to crop Jatropha.

The network participants consider that Jatropha cropping can contribute to income diversification and decentralised power supplies at village and individual company levels, once having detoxified the harvest by removing the poisonous phorbolester contained in Jatropha, The press residue from the production of Jatropha oil could then be used as a physiologically valuable animal fodder. However, this requires the corresponding technical infrastructure.

Participants noted that a positive impact of jatropha cropping is its ability to improve soil properties on marginal areas and on land sensitive to erosion. Another interesting approach that is already being carried out successfully in Egypt is irrigating the plant with waste water. The experts are of the opinion that deeper research and in particular intensive breeding and selection work, sustainable cropping systems and extension services for small farmers are a precondition before further considering the potential of the Jatropha plant as a supplier of energy.

More information is available from:
GIZ: Alberto Camacho Henriquez
DIE: Michael Brüntrup

Author: Alberto Camacho Henriquez; GIZ

Related article: Jatropha curcas: Curse or wonder plant?

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