Jatropha: Oil from the soil

By François Misser

Posted on Monday, 25 May 2009 13:55

Projects producing biodiesel that use oil from the jatropha

plant are intensifying across Africa, with a view to providing a

product that can compete with standard fuels

Two of Africa’s poorest countries, Burkina Faso and Mozambique, are taking the lead as producers of the newly popular biofuel plant jatropha curcas – the seeds of which can be milled to produce an oil that works either as diesel fuel or as an ingredient in soap.

In West Africa, where it grows well even in drought-prone areas, jatropha is taking over large tracts of land. In Burkina, 67,000 hectares have been planted through the efforts of Larlé Naba Tigré, one of the country’s leading traditional rulers. Around 62,000 farmers are now involved in the project, in partnership with Germany’s Deutsche Biodiesel.?

To those concerned that jatropha could displace food production, Larlé Naba Tigré advocates an agro-forestry model in which jatropha constitutes one of many crops, contrary to the mono-crop model pioneered in India. A pilot plant, owned by Larle Naba Tigré’s Belwet Biocarburants, plans to produce 375 tonnes of oil this year, rising to 9,000 tonnes in 2010 and finally 50,000 tonnes a year by 2020. It is also building a $2m soap factory.

In Southern Africa, Mozambique offers attractive opportunities for the British, Canadian and Dutch firms that operate there. Canada’s Energem Biofuels hopes to produce its first oil by mid-2010 at its Bilene project in Gaza Province, which could cover 60,000ha by 2020. Despite the apparent threat posed to the viability of jatropha projects by the recent fall in crude oil prices, Energem’s CEO Thomas Swithenbank sees a long-term future. “Land is available and the climate is appropriate,” he says. “The soil is a non-food area, access and logistics are good.”?

The Netherlands’ ESV is planting 11,000 ha in Inhambane Province for production destined for the EU, to take advantage of the European Biofuels Directive – which aims to raise the percentage of energy for transport fuels from renewable resources from 2% to 20% over the next ten years.

Jatropha projects are also making headway in other African countries, although there are still doubts about the plant’s long-term future as a fuel source. “There are many studies being conducted but the experience on the ground is limited,” says Serge Klumper, head of Southern Africa at the European Investment Bank.

For the profitability of any jatropha project to be assured, the price of crude oil will probably need to settle above $70 per barrel. Failing this, producers may have to rely on the European market or local subsidies.

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