What does it take to start a biodiesel industry?

By Marguerite Torrey

In This Section

April 2013

  • Establishing a new industry in a developing country requires the entrepreneur to accept conditions as they are, and to innovate with whatever is available.
  • In a developing nation, job creation can be more important than profits.
  • In describing efforts to establish a basis for a biodiesel industry in Haiti, consultant Kathleen Robbins asks the provocative question, “How do you create a vibrant economy where there isn’t one?”

If you wanted to start a business making biodiesel in a developing nation like Haiti, how would you go about it? What would you need to get it off the ground?

Kathleen Robbins found that—no matter how improbable the connection may seem at first—she needed to add “develop biodiesel” to the list of things to do for a project bringing modern communications technology in the form of cell (mobile) phones to Haiti.

Cell phones in Haiti

Two US-owned companies introduced cell phones in Haiti in the mid-1990s, but their uptake was fairly slow, until the Irish cell phone company Digicel entered the market in 2006. Since then, cellular telephone services have expanded rapidly owing, in part, to the introduction of low-cost phones complying with GSM (Groupe Spécial Mobile) digital systems.

However, conditions within Haiti—for example, the lack of a reliable electric power grid to charge these phones—initially hampered their adoption. Chinese-made solar-powered chargers for cell phones became available in Haiti in 2007 at a cost of $10 each compared with Haitian-made chargers at $17.50. In light of the poverty in the country (see Sidebar, Facts about Haiti) most people purchased the cheaper models. By the time they discovered how poorly made they were, the Haitian manufacturer had gone out of business.

Opportunities for jatropha

The solution to the problem of how to charge these cell phones in a way that Haitians can afford lay in using what is available in Haiti as opposed to what works somewhere else.

One possible solution happened to be growing right on the island. Jatropha curcas (gwo medisyen, or “big medicine,” in Haitian Creole) is a shrubby tree that is native to Haiti. Its seeds are known for their high oil content, and efforts are already under way outside of Haiti to use jatropha oil to make biodiesel and aviation fuel. So, why couldn’t Haitians use this native plant to make biodiesel that could then be used to fuel generators to charge the cell phones—and by extension to stimulate the Haitian economy? Furthermore, doing so would encourage the planting of more perennial jatropha trees, which could alleviate two other problems that plague the country: deforestation and erosion (see Sidebar, Facts about Haiti).

Robbins points out that since jatropha is a native plant, it is already adapted to the boom-or-bust rainfall regime of Haiti. It likes a warm climate, and cannot grow where frost occurs.

During the dry season in Haiti, jatropha plants shed their leaves and remain dormant until rain comes. Then, within three months, the plants produce leaves, flowers, and finally seeds. Under these conditions jatropha can produce at least two crops a year. If irrigation is available, it may even be possible to obtain three crops a year, as research in the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, has already demonstrated.

Jatropha seeds can contain as much as 35% oil (the University of Illinois Sustainable Technology Center tested one sample having a 49.9% oil content), which in rural Haiti can be used to fuel lamps and stoves. If the oil is transesterified, the resultant biodiesel can also be used to fuel diesel generators and vehicles, and the by-product glycerine can be used to make soap.

It may even be possible to use the jatropha seed cake as animal food if varieties without toxic phorbol esters are commercially developed. The seed cake from which the oil has been removed contains more nitrogen than chicken manure, and its protein content is higher than soybeans. Without phorbol esters, the seeds could be fed to swine, poultry, and fish such as tilapia.

Bees pollinate jatropha flowers, so honey might also be a product that results from jatropha cultivation.

Starting a biodiesel industry in Haiti

Digicel, the main cell phone provider in Haiti, is presently powering each of its 500+ cell towers in the country with petrodiesel generators. The company has committed to buying all the biodiesel that Jatropha Pepinyè (Haitian Creole for “jatropha nursery”) can produce (see below), so long as it meets standards.

Robbins emphasizes that establishing a jatropha industry in Haiti requires one to accept conditions in the country just as they are. The infrastructure on which developed nations depend is not there—no electricity, few wells for water and no electricity to drive pumps, poor roads, no mechanical harvesters . . . the list goes on and on.

Robbins and Rob Fisher (former University of Georgia-Athens professor and landscape architect), who are team members of the US non-profit organization Partner for People and Place, have been working with Haitians in the northeastern mountains of the country near Terrier Rouge to develop a jatropha industry since 2007. Partner for People and Place brings together sponsors and specialists, looks for solutions that respect the culture and ecology of Haiti, and uses local people to administer and implement development.

Taking account of the limitations in Haiti requires a change in attitude. Whereas in a developed nation the primary goal of a company is profits, in Haiti job creation is more important, at least in the short term. No Western nation would consider harvesting jatropha by hand, but that is the method of choice for Haiti because (i) there are no mechanical harvesters and (ii) there is a desperate need for jobs. As a start, Partner for People and Place envisions 1,000 growers, each farming 1–2 hectares of jatropha. Seeds are harvested by individuals, passing through the groves every 5–7 days, because the native jatropha varieties ripen unevenly over a period of 6–8 weeks. Calculations indicate that the total production from these 1,000 growers could be 1,000,000 gallons (3,800,000 liters) of biodiesel annually.

Jatropha Pepinyè, a farmers’ co-op jointly sponsored by Partner for People and Place and Esperance et Vie, has been growing jatropha seedlings for five years to provide planting stock for co-op members. So far, approximately 50 hectares have been planted. The decision was made early-on to start the business with seeds from local plants, since they are already adapted to a climate having wide swings in annual rainfall. In its initial efforts to collect native seeds, Jatropha Pepinyè offered to give the first 100 people to bring in two coffee cans full of jatropha seeds a hand-cranked charger for a Digicel cell phone. From the enthusiastic response, Jatropha Pepinyè started its work.

Two members of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC; USA) Sustainable Technology Center, Tim Lindsay and Joseph Pickowitz, identified a diesel-powered Desmet Rosedowns Mini 40 expeller that had been used by UIUC; according to company specifications, it has a nominal capacity of 40 kilograms/hour depending on what kind of seed is being processed. Lindsay and Pickowitz helped set up the expeller at Jatropha Pepinyè in 2009, and got it up and running. In the initial work to develop procedures, seeds and any accompanying dirt have been fed straight into the expeller, meaning that the resultant oil is not especially clean.

Thus, there are no immediate plans to sell the oil as such for fuel without further processing. To use the triglyceride oil without treatment could void the warranty of, for example the Caterpillar diesel engines Digicel presently uses to power its cell towers.


Jatropha Pepinyè already has 50 hectares of jatropha planted in seven plots at Terrier Rouge. About 6 hectares are planted with a nontoxic variety of jatropha, developed by CHIBAS Bioenergy founder Gael Pressoir, a Haitian Ph.D. who initially worked in Mexico on breeding this cultivar.

Seedlings are planted at a rate of 1,650 plants per hectare at a spacing of 2 meters × 3 meters. Planting has been carried out by hand (again, the need to provide jobs), and the work has been arduous. The land on which the trees are being planted has not been cultivated for 30 years, and the predominant plant growing on the land is mesquite trees, which are well known for the reach of their lateral roots and the depth to which their taproots will grow in search of water.

Yields of jatropha seeds from the plantings in Haiti have not yet met expectations. Less than 50 kilometers away, in research plots located in the Dominican Republic, yields have been about 4–5 metric tons (MT) of seed per hectare, whereas with the same fertilizer and a basically similar soil at Terrier Rouge the number is 0.5 MT/ha. One contributing factor to the difference may be that the Dominican Republic trees are flood-irrigated during the dry season, allowing a third harvest each year. Another is that the Haitian plants are less than two years old, whereas the Dominican plants have reached full production maturity.

By-product glycerine from the production of biodiesel is being used to manufacture soap. This is being sold in the cities of Port au Prince and Cap Haitien and to the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Line, which docks at the port of Labadee.

Pickowitz and Lindsay have found that more oil can be expelled from jatropha seeds if they are first heated to 100°C. They are presently using a rocket heater (a 95+% efficient stove that uses biomass) to warm the heat transfer fluid for the expeller, but they are developing plans to use a solar heater that would be augmented by a rocket heater. To date, the biodiesel being produced by Jatropha Pepinyè is being used on-site to fuel generators.

As anticipated, the efforts to produce jatropha oil are leading to other saleable products that benefit the Haitian people. For example, the Jatropha Pepinyè plots are fenced in for purposes of the study. These trees provide shade to the soil, making it cooler and more productive of grass. Sheep have been grazed in some of these plots—sheep will not eat jatropha leaves—and their meat has been sold to the Jordanian troops stationed in Haiti by the United Nations. The Haitians working on the project would have preferred to raise goats in the enclosures, since the national diet favors goat meat, but goats are notorious for their ability to climb over fences and escape. When that problem is solved, plans are to raise goats between the trees, for they too will not eat jatropha.

Obviously, much needs to be done to make Jatropha Pepinyè a profitable, sustainable business, but those who are involved in the project are making every effort to do the things necessary to make it succeed—taking account of conditions as they are, working with people “where they are,” and looking to innovate wherever they can and with whatever they can.

Marguerite Torrey is Technical Projects Editor for Inform. She may be contacted at mtorrey@aocs.org.


For further information contact Kathleen Robbins at: krobbins513@hotmail.com; or Rob Fisher at: rob@peopleandplace.org.

Organizations working with Jatropha Pepinyè

Other organizations working to help in Haiti




Facts about Haiti


  • The country of Haiti is more mountainous as a percentage of land than Switzerland.
  • There are numerous microclimates in the country including lush green cloud forests (in some of the mountain ranges and the protected areas), high mountain peaks, arid desert, mangrove forest, and palm tree-lined beaches.
  • The rainy seasons can bring as little as 700 mm of precipitation per year, or more than 1,200 mm.
  • Charcoal production is a major factor in the deforestation that experts say has felled 98% of Haiti’s tree cover, with the remaining 2% “disappearing fast”.



  • Eighty percent of Haitians are “informally employed.” That is, they work intermittently as short-term jobs become available.
  • The average annual income is about $500.
  • Sixty percent of the food consumed in the country is imported.
  • Eighty percent of Haiti’s college graduates presently live in the United States and Canada. About 1.5% of African Americans are Haitian, but 11% of African-American physicians are Haitian.
  • The literacy rate (those age 15 and over who can read and write) is 62% (2010). For comparison, the literacy rate through South American and Caribbean nations is ~90%.



  • In 1804 Haiti was the richest colony in the French Empire. It accounted for 40% of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s income. At that time, it had a higher grossdomestic product than the fledgling United States.
  • In 1950 Haiti was more prosperous than the Dominican Republic (the country with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola).
  • At present Haiti is the poorest country in Western Hemisphere.
  • In 2009 Haiti spent $400,000,000 to import petrodiesel. Much of this was used to fuel generators that provide electricity to individual villages.
  • There is no national electrical power grid.
  • The country is heavily dependent on the estimated US$3 billion in annual remittances from the United States, France, and other countries where Haitians live.
  • According to the US Central Intelligence Agency, there were 4.2 million cell phones in Haiti in 2011 for the country’s 9.8 million inhabitants. The nation’s telecommunications infrastructure is among the least developed in Latin America and the Caribbean.