Politics and policy

Study says biofuel crop can improve earnings of farmers in marginal lands

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Experts warn that Jatropha farming could prove uneconomical in the long run if high oil-yielding varieties are not developed. Photo/FILE

Experts warn that Jatropha farming could prove uneconomical in the long run if high oil-yielding varieties are not developed. Photo/FILE 

By STEVE MBOGO

Posted  Thursday, August 5  2010 at  00:00

Genetically improved Jatropha crop that has high bio-diesel content, which can be processed into motor and industrial oil and other products such as seedcake for livestock feeds and soap, can help Africa increase the value of its marginal land and incomes, research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says.

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The research, conducted in Tanzania, Mali and India, looked at the success and failure of past Jatropha crop projects in the three countries and found that the potential for the crop is enormous.

However, the report adds that the crop must be grown under a well managed environment.

In the case of Kenya, for example, Jatropha growing requires research to develop appropriate varieties for specific areas.

FAO, a United Nations agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) — an umbrella organisation for agricultural research and development in Africa — said in new reports that Jatropha production could benefit poor farmers, particularly in semi-arid and remote areas of developing countries.

The reports come amid raging debate in Kenya on the viability of the crop as a source of biofuel.

A recent report: Jatropha Reality Check, commissioned by German development group GTZ, found that the crop is not economically viable as a bio-energy source, but it can do well as a fence.

Experts warn that Jatropha growing could prove uneconomical in the long run if high oil-yielding varieties are not developed, adding that the crop might not have what it takes to attract the private sector.

But experts already involved in trials of the crop say it is doing well in areas such as Makueni and Kitui and that what is required is increased research to find out which varieties suit what regions.

“We have small scale farmers in Makueni who are growing Jatropha and benefiting economically from it,” says Jatropha Vanilla Foundation head Lorna Omulo.

Lack of adequate research on energy crops in Kenya, and activism against biofuels, has meant that the country lags behind in exploiting opportunities to fast track production.

The FAO report says Jatropha is essentially a wild plant sorely in need of improvement and warns that expecting the crop to significantly substitute oil imports in developing countries is unrealistic.

“Many of the actual investments and policy decisions on developing Jatropha as an oil crop have been made without the backing of sufficient science-based knowledge,” the FAO report says.

“Realising the true potential of Jatropha requires separating facts from claims and half-truths.”

Research on the crop, meant to be carried out by the private sector under the World Bank funded Kenya Agricultural Productivity Project, was not completed because the government agency responsible for releasing money failed to do so.

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