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

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 

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.

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.

As a result, Kenya relies on research done by non-profit groups and other experts working with farmers, which does not capture the local reality, to make decisions on the way forward for Jatropha and other biofuel crops.

However, progress has been made in ethanol production and sugar millers plan to step up production for blending with diesel.

Kenya lacks a policy on bio-diesel production. The draft developed by the government and the private sector has been gathering dust since 2008.

The policy is expected to define sensitive issues such as where biofuel crops should be grown, how land for large scale farming should be acquired, and how crop seeds should be developed.

There has been an uproar regarding a private company’s acquisition of 50,000 hectares of land in Dakacha, Coast province, for large-scale production of biofuel.

The local community alleges that the land was irregularly allocated to the foreign company, while environmentalists say clearing of woodland to grow biofuel crops will affect an important bird habitat.

“Large scale clearing of land for plantations in Dakacha will erode the fragile soil and take up scarce water,” says NatureKenya director Paul Matiku.

Dakacha community representative Joshua Kahindi says they were not adequately consulted.

“We are against the project as it will displace us from our ancestral land,” he says.

FAO says in its report that biofuel production encourages acquisition of large acres of land by private concerns, which threatens the poor’s access to land especially in areas where land tenure systems are weak.

Land tenure systems

The report recommends improved land administration systems that harmonise formal and customary land tenure systems.

The bio-diesel policy will be expected to address such sensitive issues.

FAO says Jatropha grows reasonably well in dry areas and on degraded soils that are marginally suited for agriculture.

Roots of the low-growing tree reach water deep into the soil. Its surface roots assist in binding the soil and can reduce soil erosion.

The crop’s seeds can be processed into bio-diesel to provide light and cooking fuel for poor rural families.

Seed cake, a by-product of the process, is valuable as fertiliser and animal feed.

Unlike other major biofuel crops such as maize, Jatropha is not a food crop.

In 2008, Jatropha was planted on an estimated 900,000 hectares globally, 760 000 ha in Asia, 120,000 ha in Africa, and 20,000 in Latin America.

By 2015, it is estimated that the crop will be planted on 12.8 million ha.

The largest producing country in Asia will be Indonesia.

In Africa, Ghana and Madagascar will be the largest producers, while brazil will lead the pack in Latin America.

The report says Jatropha has the biggest potential in dry and remote areas where food production is not competitive.

However, to obtain sustained yields in the degraded soils inputs such as water and fertiliser are essential.

Replacing traditional cooking fuels with cooking stoves that run on Jatropha oil is healthy, as cooking is done in a smoke-free environment and women do not have to spend time gathering fuel wood.

Reduced use of fuel wood also relieves pressure on forest resources.

“Jatropha could eventually evolve into a high yielding crop and may well be productive on degraded and saline soils in low rainfall areas,” the FAO report says.

“It’s by-products may be valuable as fertiliser, livestock feed, or as biogas feedstock. Its oil can have other markets such as soap (production), pesticides and medicines, and it can help reverse land degradation,” says the report.

The FARA report cautions that debate on biofuel crops encroaching on food crop production should not discourage Africa from venturing into green energy.

Relevant discussion

“The more relevant discussion today is how to properly integrate bio-energy into agriculture production systems in different regions of Africa,” says Rocio Diaz-Chavez, a research fellow at Imperial College London and author of the report.

“There have been instances where bio-energy production has produced negative impacts, but that does not mean it is not possible to develop this sector in a sustainable manner,” she says.

Mozambique, for example, has adopted a policy that designates only sugar cane, sweet sorghum, Jatropha and coconut for bio-diesel production.

South African parliament has decreed that maize can not be used for biofuel production.

Mali does not allow food crops to be used for biofuel production.

FARA says the challenge today is not so much whether bio-energy production can co-exist with food production, but rather how it can be scaled-up to help African countries realise their potential.

“There are the same challenges you see for any crops, which is: If you don’t have adequate resources, you cannot boost production,” she says.