Jatropha: The answer to Kenya’s fuel problem?

Jatropha (scientific name Jatropha curcas) has been hailed as the ideal biofuel crop that holds the promise of reducing dependence on fossil fuels in a world that is grappling with the effects of global warming.

Mature seeds of the jatropha tree produce up to 40 percent oil. When the seeds are crushed, the resulting inedible oil can be used to run a diesel engine. Among jatropha’s key attractions are its ability to grow in arid wastelands and its resistance to drought. Jatropha can also be used to reclaim eroded land because it stabilizes the top soil.

As they grow, biofuel crops take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby cancelling out the carbon dioxide released when the biofuel is burned. In this way, biofuel is considered more environment-friendly than fossil fuel.

Countries like China, India, Malaysia and the Philippines are making plans for huge plantations of jatropha. In India, over 30 million hectares of wasteland have been identified as suitable for jatropha cultivation. China is planning an 80,000-acre jatropha plantation in Sichuan.

British biofuel company D1 Oils, the world’s leading developer of jatropha biodiesel, signed a deal with multinational petroleum company BP in July 2007 to invest £80 million in jatropha over the next five years, with plantations in India, South Africa and Southeast Asia.

Interest in jatropha is also growing locally and from the look of things Kenya could soon be joining the jatropha bandwagon.

Last week, the Daily Nation carried two articles that detailed plans by Japanese investors to start large-scale commercial production of jatropha trees within six months. The Kenya Investment Authority reportedly said it would fast-track the necessary paperwork to see that the operation gets underway “with minimal delays”.

Biwako Bio-Laboratory Incorporated, one of Japan’s largest biodiesel producers, is reportedly planning to establish an initial 30,000-hectare plantation of jatropha trees in Kenya, increasing this to 100,000 hectares in 10 years. This initial investment is expected to translate into 200,000 tonnes of biodiesel per year.

Considering that the tree has a lifespan of up to 30 years and can survive up to three consecutive years of drought, jatropha presents an attractive picture indeed as the country’s next wonder cash crop.

However, there is another side to this rosy picture… another side that is not so rosy.

Some experts have warned that jatropha does not provide an easy answer to the biofuels problem because it is toxic and yields are low and unreliable. Also, because each fruit on the tree ripens at a different time, harvesting must be done separately. This makes jatropha growing a highly labour-intensive exercise.

Concerns have also been raised in some countries with regard to the potential environmental impacts of jatropha cultivation. In 2006, Western Australia banned the tree because of its capacity to quickly become a hard-to-control weed. There are also no scientific studies on the long-term impacts of large-scale cultivation of jatropha on soil fertility.

Lessons on long-term environmental impacts can be learned from Kenya’s recent experience with the Prosopis juliflora shrub, locally known as “mathenge”, which the government and the Food and Agriculture Organisation introduced into the country in the 1980s to prevent soil erosion in arid and semi-arid marginal lands.

Twenty years down the line and “mathenge” has turned into an invasive weed, overgrowing much of the land it was meant to reclaim. Its thorny seeds have crippled people and killed livestock.

Earlier this year, a group of pastoralists from the Ilchamus community in Baringo, one of the areas where the shrub was grown, sued the government for loss of livelihoods occasioned by the weed and questioned why studies were not carried out on the potential negative impacts of the plant at the time it was brought into the country.

Another concern is that jatropha could have far-reaching socio-economic impacts especially in countries where subsistence agriculture is an important economic activity. Some fear that farmers may replace food crops with jatropha, resulting in increased risk of food insecurity.

Other questions concern the production arrangements, with pertinent implications as regards land ownership and land use. Exactly who will grow jatropha? Will it be grown by small-scale farmers as a supplemental crop? Or will jatropha growing be a large-scale plantation-based agribusiness? Will it be grown under contract production systems, and if so, how much say will the farmers have?

Such concerns led a recent United Nations report on biofuels to conclude that “the benefits to farmers are not assured, and may come with increased costs. At their worst, biofuel programs can also result in a concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty”.

As Kenya seeks to enter into large-scale commercial production of jatropha, a cautionary approach is needed that takes into account the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts in the long term.

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