Update on Jatropha

By Marguerite Torrey

In This Section

January 2010

Inedible oil from the seeds of Jatropha curcas is reputedly a wonder crop for biofuels in the middle latitudes of the globe (~30°N to ~30°S) because (i) it is not a source of food, (ii) it can be home-grown, reducing or eliminating the need to import petroleum-based fuels, and (iii) in sufficient quantity, it can be exported, thus providing an income stream for the producing country. Furthermore, the plant can grow on land unsuited for crops needed by humans and animals.

Jatropha in sub-Saharan Africa

One of the early ideas regarding jatropha as an energy source was to grow it in countries struggling to produce or purchase adequate supplies of petroleum-based fuels. In the past six years, jatropha has been planted in a number of sub-Saharan countries including South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, and Swaziland. There are also plans to start production in Rwanda.

TANZANIA. Farmers and environmental groups, citing concerns over food shortages, have moved the Tanzanian government to suspended investments in jatropha worth millions of dollars after farmers were evicted from their fields in favor of biofuels. The government also halted allocation of large parcels of land to biofuel investors-5,000 rice farmers were evicted to make way for biofuels growth. The Kenyan newspaper The EastAfrican said Esther Mfugale, coordinator of biofuel production in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Co-operatives for Tanzania, indicated the federal government has ordered local governments to stop selling land to biofuel investors until nationwide policies can be established regarding biofuel investments.

KENYA. Time magazine featured the effects of jatropha farming on Kenyan food security in an October 2009 issue. In 2000, the Kenyan government started encouraging farmers to plant jatropha. The plant was promoted as growing with little water and as providing large profits in the global search for alternative energy sources. Hundreds of farmers converted parts of their small farms from food to jatropha. However, the drought that started in 2005 in Kenya clearly showed that jatropha cannot grow without water. A controversial study in the June 23 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (www.pnas.org/content/106/25/10219.full) suggests jatropha requires more water per liter of biofuel produced than most other biofuel plants. In a country facing a food crisis due to drought, growing jatropha for use in making fuel may not be the best use of the water resource.

Data from the World Food Programme (www.wfp.org/countries/kenya) indicate 3.8 million Kenyans need food aid; 31% of the population is undernourished.

RWANDA. The government of Rwanda announced in November that two foreign companies-Eco Positive (London, United Kingdom) and Eco-fuel Global LLC (Walnut Creek, California, USA)-had agreed to invest $250 million in growing jatropha on 10,000 hectares provided by the government. The yield is expected to be 20 million liters of biodiesel annually, which may replace up to 20% of the country's fossil fuel requirement.

According to the contract, Eco-Fuel Global will deal with the technology, whereas Eco-Fuel Positive will develop the finances to run the project. About 6,500 jobs will be created by the project.

At present, Rwanda imports 160 million liters of fuel through Kenyan or Tanzanian ports, and it often faces shortages. The 13% of total fuel consumed that will be provided through local production of jatropha will "have no direct impact on agriculture production," according to Energy Minister Albert Butare, since the crop will be grown on "marginal land which is less or not productive at all for agriculture."

The project is expected to start production in 3-4 years. Groundwork should begin during the second quarter of 2010.

GHANA. Biofuel Africa Ltd., a subsidiary of Solar Harvest AS (Stavanger, Norway), started its first working farm operation in Ghana in 2007. It announced in October it has begun commercial production of jatropha oil, the first company in West Africa to move from growing and selling jatropha fruits and seeds to production and sale of jatropha oil on a commercial scale.

According to Ghana Business News.com (October 26, 2009), Biofuel Africa's initial production was "10 tons of biodiesel," or 50 barrels, from 660 hectares of one-year-old trees.

The company has created considerable consternation, however, among small-holders who contend BioFuelAfrica took their farmland fraudulently, stripped it bare, and planted jatropha as a monoculture (www.africanbiodiversity.org).

Perspectives on jatropha as a biofuel

There is no doubt that the global financial downturn has contributed to disappointment in jatropha as a biofuel, but there are other considerations. Rob Bailis, an environmental scientist with Yale University, was quoted in Nature (461:328-329, 2009) as saying, "Over the past three years, the investment [in jatropha] got way ahead of the plant science."

Yields for crops such as maize have been optimized over the past several thousand years, whereas jatropha is still a newcomer in the field of agriculture. D1 Oils (see inform 20:421, 2009), which initially started as a business to plant jatropha and harvest oil, is now conducting a breeding program to develop seeds with high oil yields. SG Biofuels (Encinitas, California, USA) is also collecting samples from jatropha plants growing in the wild and developing a library of genetic material to use in developing enhanced seed strains (inform 20:320, 514, 2009).

At a discussion organized by the Second Jatropha World Africa meeting (held in Brussels on October 14-15, 2009), Chris Unter and James Scruby, directors of Viridesco (London, UK; Mozambique; Zambia), pointed out that, in theory, there is no problem with jatropha as a large-scale plantation plant. It is necessary, though, that the crop be studied and cultivation techniques perfected.

In an article written for Cleantech.com (http://cleantech.com/news/5177/sg-biofuels-potential-jatropha), Kirk Haney, chief executive officer of SG Biofuels, pointed out, "The genetic improvement of jatropha through traditional plant breeding could increase yields 50% to 100%, and quite possibly much higher." Further, "By way of comparison, yield of the rubber tree was increased by 400% through similar breeding efforts." If biotechnology is brought to bear on the question, the yield may be increased even more.

From another perspective, CommodityOnline reported that Scruby suggested that converting jatropha oil to biodiesel may be misguided. Putting jatropha oil through a chemical processing plant creates added costs. This may not be important in a large-scale plantation, where product is being exported to colder climates. In climates where temperatures do not fall far enough to congeal jatropha oil, though, pure oil (straight vegetable oil) can be pressed in local pressing equipment and the filtered oil used virtually as-is. Scruby said, "Within this model, I see a commercial approach, which has better margins and benefits local communities."

Thus, jatropha may have a future in sub-Saharan Africa once crop improvements have been devised and management practices are established. And an answer must be reached, perhaps uniquely for each country, whether the goal is to produce oil for local consumption-straight vegetable oil and/or biodiesel-or for export.

inform Technical Projects Editor Marguerite Torrey.