20.09.2012

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Author: Eirik Jarl Trondsen

Jatropha curcas is being presented as a wonder crop not only in Kenya, but generally in Africa also. Owing to its adaptability to semi-arid lands, this newly available energy crop is expected to be less expensive to produce than other energy crops such as rapeseed and soybeans, and is viewed as one of the most viable candidates for biodiesel feed stocks. Little surprise many farmers are excited about the “wonder crop”. And the prospects of growing diesel in the garden may sound appealing, too.

However, the problem is that the hype surrounding Jatropha that was exemplified by an article in Newsweek magazine around February 2007 on “the Cinderella plant” was backed neither by practical experience nor by scientific findings. Like with Moringa, Neem and other “miracle” trees, the claims made were partly based on opportunistic business people selling seeds or seedlings at high prices or “expert” consultants looking for new opportunities.

Nobody has sufficient experience in commercial farming of Jatropha in East Africa to give accurate and reliable information with regard to its sustainability. The hype therefore stems from unverified information, combined with wishful thinking of reducing greenhouse gases while fighting poverty. Whilst Jatropha’s contribution to mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is strongly emphasised, this is only done under the assumption that new regulations and carbon-offset markets will provide price premiums for renewable sources of energy. Nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but unrealistic assumptions and expectations will disappoint farmers and investors alike. 

Currently, I think there is not a single company close to being economically viable through the production of Jatropha and the sale of related products. Instead, many have even lost a substantial amount of money while trying to establish themselves in the business.

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