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  • The bumpy road to clean, green fuel

Osman Ibrahim is encouraging farmers in Malawi to abandon their traditional tobacco crops and enter the energy sector — by planting a tree called jatropha (Jatropha curcas).

Its seeds contain an oil that can be blended with conventional gasoline or diesel to make 'biodiesel', an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Pure, the oil can be used for cooking, lighting or generating electricity. And the range of by-products includes glycerin — used in cosmetics — and 'seed cake', which is re-processed and used as an organic fertiliser.

Ibrahim, who heads an organisation called the Biodiesel Agricultural Association, considers the tree to be a kind of 'green gold', a cash crop that can boost rural incomes in poor countries while helping address issues ranging from climate change to soil erosion.

Jatropha plantation in Rajasthan, India

 

Ibrahim is not alone, nor is Malawi unique. Elsewhere in Africa, and in parts of Asia and Latin America, plantations of jatropha are appearing.

Clean development

In Indonesia last month, the heads of six major energy companies gathered with the governor of the central bank, a dozen cabinet ministers and representatives of universities and local development organisations to sign a declaration supporting government plans to produce jatropha oil on a large scale.

According to the plan, by 2009 Indonesia will have ten million hectares of jatropha plantations, each hectare yielding enough oil to produce 1,000 litres of biodiesel a year.

"The grand plan is to use either straight jatropha oil or biodiesel as fuel in power plants managed by PLN, the state electricity company, to replace fossil-fuel-based plants," says Nyoman Iswarayoga of Yayasan Pelangi Indonesia, a non-governmental organisation working on climate change and energy issues.

"Since carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced as a result, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) could be used to support investment in jatropha-based fuel production," Iswarayoga adds.

The CDM is a provision of the UN climate change convention that allows industrialised nations to offset their emissions of greenhouse gases by investing in non-polluting projects in developing countries.

Seeds of change

Staring in their second year, jatropha trees can produce seeds for more than 30 years. Each mature tree produces between five and 15 kilograms of seeds, three times a year.

Extracting oil from jatropha seeds in
Tanzania

"If you have very good conditions — soil, water, plants — you could get 5,000 kilograms of seeds per hectare per year, which can give 1,500 litres of oil per harvest," says Reinhard Henning, of the Germany-based Jatropha Information Service. "If the soil is not so good, you might only get half that."

Extracting the oil is a simple process, and cars do not need to be modified to use the resulting biodiesel. In fact, Rudolph Diesel himself had vegetable oil in mind when designing the engine that carries his name.

Cutting the carbon

"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," said Diesel in 1912. "But such oils may become in the course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time."

Many think that time will soon be upon us. The global market for biodiesel is being shaped by international energy policy and a growing acceptance that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will limit climate change.

Unlike petroleum, jatropha oil is renewable and biodegradable. Burning it, or biodiesel made from it, is cleaner than burning fossil fuels as it produces a fraction of the carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.

Carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the production of biodiesel from jatropha plantations are likely to be less than 15 per cent compared to petrol-diesel, according to a March 2005 paper in Natural Resources Forum by George Francis and colleagues at Germany's University of Hohenheim.

This engine with generator is now running on
Jatropha in Ghana

The European Union (EU) has set a target of using 10.5 billion litres of biodiesel by 2010 — double what Europe itself s projected to be able to supply. The 2001 Study of the European Biodiesel Market by international consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan says the EU market for biodiesel could be worth US$2.4 billion by 2007.

Lucrative alternative

All this, says Ibrahim, is good news for Malawi, where most people live on less than US$1 a day. He says jatropha could be a lucrative alternative to tobacco, Malawi's agricultural mainstay and principal source of foreign exchange.

As global demand for tobacco falls, and the cost of inputs such as fertilisers increases, many farmers in Malawi are feeling the squeeze.

"The biodiesel crop campaign has come at the right time, just as the country is looking for an alternative to tobacco," says Alic Kafasalire, a capacity building specialist for the Coordination Unit for the Rehabilitation of the Environment in Malawi.

Oil is extracted from the seeds using a press

In 2004, Malawi's annual gross domestic product per person was just US$600. With adequate rain and farm inputs, a tobacco farmer can expect to earn just US$400-500 a year from each of their 2-5 hectares of land.

Ibrahim says Malawi's farmers could make much more by planting up to 2,500 jatropha trees on each hectare.

Every jatropha advocate has their own set of projections for profits, depending on the density of trees, but on one thing they agree: there is money to be made. Each hectare could yield jatropha oil and glycerin worth nearly US$2,000 a year, says Ibrahim.

Adopting jatropha, he thinks, will be a first step out of poverty for Malawi's farmers, and they seem willing to try. "The benefits from the jatropha and its products are just enormous," says Dennison Bonomali, whose family grows the trees to produce soap, paraffin and other items for sale.

Food vs. fuel

But critics of biofuels are as vocal as their advocates. One concern is that, globally, there will be a trade-off between using land to grow food and using it to grow fuel.

"If biofuels take off, they will cause a global humanitarian disaster," said environmentalist and writer George Monbiot in a November 2004 article in UK newspaper The Guardian. Monbiot argued that vast tracts of agricultural land in developing countries would be used to produce biodiesel for car-loving nations instead of food for the poor.

"People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation," he wrote. "In a contest between their demand for fuel and other people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time."

Winnowing the seeds to remove
dust before extracting their oil,
Mali

 

Others say that the energy, water and other inputs needed to grow biofuel crops exceed the energy value of the fuel produced. According to research published in July 2005 by David Pimentel of Cornell University and Tad Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley, producing biodiesel from soybeans requires 27 per cent more energy than the biodiesel generates — and the source of the energy used is polluting fossil fuels. For sunflower biodiesel, the figure is 118 per cent.

But jatropha can grow on poor-quality land unsuitable for food crops and needs little water or fertilisers. Nor does it need pesticides. In fact, jatropha deters pests — birds, mammals and insects do not eat it.

Pimentel says jatropha "sounds interesting and appears to have potential. I like the idea of controlling soil erosion and increasing the habitat for wild animals.'' 

An Indian vision

Although native to Central America, jatropha is now found throughout the tropics, and its use as a source of biodiesel is not confined to Malawi. Ibrahim's activities are part of a ripple spreading across the developing world. In 2005 alone, new efforts to encourage farmers to adopt the plant were announced in Burkina Faso, Ghana, India, Nicaragua and Nepal, among others.

According to official estimates, India has about 40 million hectares of 'wasteland' — 14 per cent of the country's total area — that could be fully or partially cultivated with jatropha.

The Indian government's Vision 2020 document says that cultivating ten million hectares with jatropha would generate 7.5 million tonnes of fuel a year, creating year-round jobs for five milllion people.

In April 2005, Labland Biotechs, based in the south Indian city of Mysore, signed a contract with the one of the world's main biodiesel companies, UK-based D1 Oils, to supply about 100 million jatropha plants and 150,000 tonnes of jatropha oil, valued at US$50 million.

Labland Biotechs will use tissue culture techniques to produce clones of the best-quality jatropha trees.

In October, D1 Oils announced it would commission its first refinery for producing biodiesel from jatropha in Chennai early next year.

But elsewhere in India, things are not going to plan. In 2003, the country's Planning Commission proposed increasing the proportion of biofuels used in India from five to 20 per cent by 2012. The commission was due to launch a 'biofuels mission' in April 2005, but this has been delayed (see India's biofuel plans hit roadblock).

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a classic 'chicken-and-egg' scenario is playing out, according to reports in the local media. In July, it was reported that until farmers begin growing jatropha, investors are unwilling to fund refineries. But without infrastructure to refine jatropha oil, farmers are unwilling to take the plunge and begin growing the trees.

Back in Malawi

Jatropha trees are already widely grown as a kind of 'living fence' throughout Africa, where parts of the trees are also used in traditional medicine. According to a Biodiesel Agricultural Association survey, more than one million jatropha trees are now growing in Malawi.

But that is just the beginning. Ibrahim's organisation is encouraging rural communities to plant the trees on all marginal land, where other crops cannot survive. He expects the area of Malawi planted with jatropha to increase over the coming year to cover an estimated area of more than 200,000 hectares.

Jatropha growing wild
in Africa

The Biodiesel Agricultural Association gives Malawian farmers jatropha trees to plant and teaches them about biodiesel production. Ibrahim is working on this with the UK-based Climate Change Corporation, set up by two founder members of D1 Oils. The two organisations have an agreement. The Climate Change Corporation funds the Biodiesel Agricultural Association's tree-planting schemes. In return, the corporation says it will buy and refine the jatropha oil produced, and sell it on to EU biodiesel producers, with whom it already has contracts.

Paul Webb of the Climate Change Corporation says the company has secured agreements with rural communities to plant jatropha on 20,000 hectares of land. It has also signed contracts with two of Malawi's leading tobacco companies to plant the trees on their land.

"This is community empowerment at its best," says Ibrahim. "The Biodiesel Agricultural Association neither buys nor leases land from the people. Both the trees and the land belong to the people. There are no strings attached."

Read more about climate change in Africa in SciDev.Net's news focus.