Jatropha curcas: Curse or wonder plant?

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. For example, Diligent, a company based in Arusha, Tanzania, and a leading Jatropha curcas out-grower company in East Africa, is not viable. Even after being in the business for ten years, it still has a long way to go before being profitable.

Normally, the target after some years of cultivating Jatropha is a yearly yield of at least one kilogram (kg) of seeds per plant. This is the feasibility test facing Jatropha. Four to five kg of seeds is required to make a litre of biofuel, and there are around 1,200 seeds to a kg. The harvesting and de-shelling process alone is a time-consuming and tedious process. One farmer can harvest and de-shell less than 10 kg of seeds a day. 

Thus, a high yield is required for Jatropha to become commercially appealing (some talk of 4 kg per year per tree). From the investor perspective, it may not be worthwhile to invest in Jatropha biodiesel production unless a large-scale operation and vast expanses of free land are available. If Jatropha is grown appropriately, it can generate income that may well be invested into increased agricultural food production and improved agriculture in general. The potential to improve agriculture in Africa is big. Unfortunately, only a small part of the land is currently being utilised.

For Jatropha to become the crop of the future as far as biofuel production goes, a clear and conducive Government policy with an implementation plan is needed as well as resources to go with it. Tax and VAT incentives are also critical.
Findings gathered by Energy Africa (EA) Ltd. Kenya/Uganda, from Shimba Hills in Kenya and Mukono & Moyo regions in Uganda, show that for Jatropha to be productive it needs proper care and timely operations. Weeding, pruning, and pest control is paramount to get a good yield.

The plant is best grown together with other food crops, and can also be promoted as a live fence/hedge to reduce erosion and improve land management. For instance, the 100 farmers contracted by Energy Africa (EA) all have food crops as their main source of income, but they grow Jatropha as a long-term investment that requires less effort than annual food crops. It is also an excellent prop for passion fruits, so that the combination of Jatropha and passion is common.

Another advantage in Shimba Hills is that Jatropha is not eaten by elephants and other wild animals. Areas in close proximity to national parks and reserves are normally affected by roaming wildlife. Plants like Jatropha offer an alternative that is unattractive to wildlife.

Contrary to the picture presented by the Jatropha hype found in some newspapers and on the Internet, our five years of experience at Energy Africa Ltd. shows that the plant needs more time to grow, and we need time to understand it. Some have advocated Jatropha as a sexy way to obtain investor funds, others have had a genuine wish for it to succeed, as a new lucrative cash crop that would benefit both smallholders, the environment and the investors. There is need to be realistic about biofuels and about what is required to develop a viable biofuel industry in Africa; one that functions hand in hand with food production and conservation.

Word Wildlife Fund (WWF), who were funded through the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF), started Jatropha projects on the Kenyan South Coast and are exacerbating the problem. At the time (2008), they were buying seeds at five times the market price. They bought at 100 Kenyan Shillings (KES) per kg = 1.20 US dollars (USD), repeating the mistake made by many NGOs of manipulating the market, increasing expectations of farmers and undermining the long-term survival of Jatropha.

When WWF started buying seeds, Energy Africa out-growers were upset with our company, as we had to base the price on the market, which is 20 KES/kg. As 4-5 kg of seed is required for a litre of oil , with a seed price of KES 100/kg as WWF was operating before crushing and filtering the oil, the price would be at KES 500/litre! The problem is a classic one. NGOs and donors have money to spend, and only a two-to-five-year horizon, so for them the pricing is less of a concern, and accountable spending is what they are measured against.
True, there is space for much more agricultural production in Kenya. But the desired rural economic benefits of Jatropha will never be achieved by simply introducing production to local communities; what is required is clear information on the grass roots as well as a sensitive approach and collaboration.

About the author
Eirik Jarl Trondsen, is the Director of Energy Africa Ltd, a company involved in Jatropha Curcas  seed and oil production, selling Jatropha oil, special lamps and soap to the local market on the South Coast of Kenya. Energy Africa is currently working in collaboration with 100 farmers in Kenya. In addition, Energy Africa Ltd is cultivating organic vegetables on two farms on the South Coast of Kenya. 

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