Jatropha: it boomed, it busted, and now it's back

What ever happened to jatropha?  Is the wonder biofuel that crashed back on the up? And should we care?

Jatropha farmers in Senegal. Photo Credit: Treesftf on Flickr

Last July, while visiting Liberia, I met a local man who said he was a “recruiter” of smallholder farmers to grow jatropha, the bush that could, if you believe the hype, deliver cheap biodiesel to the world.  George was genuine, looking for a way to help his fellow small farmers, and had a target to sign up Liberian farmers with 100,000 hectares for growing the crop.

He showed me the form he was asking farmers to sign.  It named a European company ready to build a processing plant in Liberia and train extension workers to help farmers with cultivation.  Each hectare of land would produce 10 tonnes of fruit a year, George told me.  The company would buy every tonne for $80.  And there was a virtually unlimited market for jatropha oil, whether as biodiesel for cars or as a “green” addition to aviation fuel.  “We do not have to worry about who will buy the fruits,” he told me.  Adding: “It is not a scam.”

I tracked down the company, Unaterra Project.  It had no office, only a mailing address at a firm of accountants on a business park outside the northern English town of Chester.  Its sole shareholder and executive director is a young Italian called Fabrizio Caputo, whose many other enterprises include plans for distributing smokeless stoves in India.

He told me by email that he had a “social mission”, promoting smallholder growers “rather than land grabbers or speculators.”  He says he is seeking “seed capital” of a million dollars to get going.  But, three years in, he has no money yet.  Scam or not, I wouldn’t rate his chances highly.

I told George I thought he and his thousands of would-be jatropha growers were most likely wasting their time.

Such tales have proliferated as the world of jatropha has boomed and busted.

The boom began in 2007, when Goldman Sachs lauded jatropha as a sure-fire agricultural investment.  It gathered pace as governments in Europe, India, China and elsewhere legislated to blend plant oils such as jatropha with diesel in diesel fuel.  Jatropha was, for a time, the number one cause of land grabs in Africa.  The bush, which only produces significant fruit after three or four years, was planted on an estimated million hectares across Asia and sub-Sahara Africa.

But the basic agronomy was work in progress.  In 2011, when I met the boss of London-based Sun Biofuels, one of the best-funded jatropha growers with plantations in Tanzania and Mozambique, he was spending hours on the phone to Mozambique, discussing the relative merits of different pruning strategies.  They seemed to be making up the rules as they went along.

When they came, the first fruits of the jatropha boom were not half as good as promised in the brochures that had hooked the financial community.  Most farmers were getting less than two tonnes per hectare, a far cry from the wild promises of up to 10 tonnes.

The financiers started pulling out.  Many companies, including Sun Biofuels, have since crashed.  A London-based “ethical investment” company called Greenleaf Global was shut down by UK courts last year for misrepresenting crop yields and likely profits to would-be investors in a scheme in Togo.  The Dutch firm Bioshape notoriously “logged and left”, without ever getting around to planting.

The financiers put it down to experience and moved on.  But the small farmers who had been persuaded by their governments and others to jump on the jatropha bandwagon suffered more seriously.   By 2011, India’s Institute of Green Economy found that 85% of Indian farmers had dropped the crop.  Jatropha, it concluded, had “brought misery to millions of poorest people across the world.”

Last December, a new study of more than 260 farmers growing jatropha in Kenya found abysmal yields.  Author Miyuki Iyama of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi didn’t rule out good crops in the future, but said farmers did not have “proper knowledge” about how to grow the crop, “which makes planting jatropha extremely risky, especially for subsistence farmers.”

One reason smallholders have suffered the worst is that many grew their crop on poorer soils, where yields were particularly bad -- even though part of the promise of jatropha had been that it could be grown on dry and rocky "wasteland" unfit for food crops.

Many are inclined to write off the whole jatropha show.  But the tide could be turning.

Last month JOil -- a big Singapore plant producer that claims to deliver jatropha capable of yields of five tonnes a hectare -- signed a MOU with a West African agribusiness company.  Benin-based Agritech will plant a quarter-million hectares, starting in Burkina Faso and moving to Benin and Togo.

And last week a big California biofuels company, SGB, announced the successful development of a new jatropha hybrid.  It promises to more than double typical yields to 5.5 tonnes per hectare under a variety of conditions, including temperatures over 45 degrees C.  This followed five years of work developing a germplasm library with more than 12,000 genotypes.  It is planting the new hybrid on an initial 250,000 hectares in India, Guatemala and Brazil, where it has hooked up with the renowned agricultural research organization, Embrapa.

Is the wondercrop on the comeback trail?  We will see.  But if it is, then the new customised versions emerging from the lab will almost certainly be optimised for growing on the best soils, with high inputs and mechanized plantation production.  Agribusiness may be back in the game, but the vision of a small farmer-friendly “green fuel” that does not displace food crops and has a low environmental impact looks like a distant memory.

Comments

The Liberia example in the article sounds like a scam, and farmers should be wary unless they receive partial payment up front, before planting.

I have worked with jatropha in Africa, and at the time (early 2000s) jatropha fuel was not quite able to compete on price terms with conventional diesel fuel, which it replaces. Perhaps that has changed now that fossil fuels are more expensive. The seed oil was much more valuable as a factor in soap production, so women who produced it chose to use the oil that way.

Even then, it wasn't valuable enough to plant in monoculture. People harvested jatropha seeds for oil when they were using the plants for other purposes like hedgerows (cattle don't browse on it.) Farmers were using the fields themselves for food or cash crops.

We'll know jatropha is safe to plant as a cash crop when the seed has a price on markets in the producing countries, and farmers can easily sell their jatropha seed the way they would commercialize any other crop. As long as it has to be promoted through these international schemes, farmers should stay away.

Jatropha will assist more in environment conservation & boost economy of rural farmers. My area have an area which is fit for this biofuel crop.

A very interesting report indeed. Yes jatropha is a plant whose genetic and agronomic characteristics are little understood. The plant has been there for long, but no reasonable investments have been made into its research and development. Consequently, there is need to study the genetics and agronomy of the plant before making massive investments in feedstock production. This is where industry is missing the point. For us, we are working with smallholder farmers in Africa to grow the plant as a hedge (live fence) with the added benefit of harvesting the seeds for soap making and to a limited extend biofuels for households. Jatropha is not a miracle plant, like all plants, it requires sunlight, water, nutrients and other things that all plants need. The logical approach is to invest in research and development, and then at the appropriate time move into large scale commercial production, that is if the results dictate that. Be warned.

From LinkedIn Group: Global Forest Policy Group By Dr.Ram Prasad

It has helped to strengthen the nexus between so called entrepreneurs and bureaucrats-cum-politicians grab village wastelands which provided easy access to poor people for grazing, fuel-wood and NTFP collection for sustainable livelihood. Today the lands from being village common property resources have been transferred in the name of individuals, forged companies/ industries, NGOs etc. Innovations have led to creating a class of destitute who are forced to go to natural forests seeking products and services for their subsistence needs.On records such lands were shown not available but on ground the lands were being used by locals and they are now shown to be under Jatropha. As correctly described boom came on paper but soon it busted.

Just another article about the subject this world doesn't really need. Uninformed and bad research, just the latest from Google news patched up a little.

Based in Ghana we are heavily involved in Jatropha, developing new non-toxic planting material, hybrids that will exceed current maximum yields by far, provide more and better oil and a seed cake which can serve as protein rich animal feed, something West African poultry farmers desperately need. Mr. Abisai is absolutely right in his comment, Jatropha is a superb plant, but it needs to be developed into a commercial crop, something which cannot happen in 2-3 years. But what I call Jatropha generation 2 is visible at the horizon.

The current wave of new activities surfacing are mostly leftovers of a generation 1 approach which will inevitably fail. JOIL, however, has by far the strongest financial muscle in Jatropha development, being a spin-off from Temasek Life Science in Singapore. With very strong scientific backing they have run reliable tests of their improved material in India and are moving cautiously into Africa right now. We will have to see how their planting material is doing in real field tests.

SGB is a very different story. A mostly marketing driven company based in San Diego trying to make a buck. Nobody can tell, where their plant development really stands.

Interesting, a good angle to remind people of the whole discussion of biofuels on waste lands. Production will always be higher on high quality land, and if their value is high they will displace food crops. It's a myth that we will be using waste lands to produce biofuels or carbon sequestration, based on market incentives.

im interested about the plants! but we have not that kind of plans here in iringa tanzania!i would like to ask how can i get the seeds?

As in any new industrial revolution, the beginning most certainly had bumpy roads to travel. Crude oil prices made historical price gains back in 2008($147) only to fall back down to around $40 within a 6 month period made the world turn into a frenzy of researching for anything that could replace the impact of high fuel prices. The world was coming to an end and we all were doomed to Hell. However, as things settled down and life got back to some form of normalcy, the long term research that was always needed will continue by those that have the money and long term thinkers like Warren Buffett will capitalize after the dust settles.. After all, it's been less than 10 years since Jatropha came into play as a bio fuel by companies like GM, BP, Boeing, UOP, Air New Zealand, Rolls Royce, Daimler Benz and dozens of other companies.
Time will tell if it becomes a household name like ethanol has over the last 20 years.

Comment by
John Guchone
Amplius Group

It is people like Fred Pearce himself that ignite a new Jatropha hype by writing articles full with suggestions, assumptions and mistakes.
•Regarding the production in Liberia he talks about an expected 10 tonnes of fruits per ha. But fruits are not used for oil production. The oil comes from the seeds and the seeds are only 60% of the total fruit volume. 6 tonnes of seed is still a very high yield but it might be reachable in future with improved jatropha plants and good agronomy. Sun Biofuels did not crash because of poor agronomy practices. It crashed because they did not want to follow the land grabbing trail. They did everything by the book, which took them almost 3 years before they could start planting. Too little time was left to satisfy the high hope of short sighted investors.
•Greenleaf Global in Togo was indeed a scam scheme, based on the UK tax rules that allow earning your pension with almost tax-free investment schemes abroad.
•The Dutch firm Bioshape planted 500 ha Jatropha on a logged area but stopped activities in Tanzania when the biggest investor pulled out because of environmental concerns and subsequent negative press damaging their mainstream activities. (Energy production). 700 workers lost their jobs.
•What Pearce called “The new study regarding abysmal yields of small farmers in Kenya” is based on a GTZ study from 2009 that has been criticized a lot internationally because of poor statistics. The same report states that most of the Jatropha in Kenya is planted in unsuitable places.
Actually Pearce is doing the same as what I do here. Showing that you know about the subject. But there the resemblance stops. Pearce is an addict of the landgrabbing theorie. As he puts is: “”Depriving the most vulnerable of the ability to feed themselves strikes me as a crazy strategy for keeping them fed.” And “Is the wondercrop on the comeback trail? We will see. “
I do not wait and see.I think the production of biofuels is a great chance for precisely the small farmers Pearce is talking about to increase their income and improve their livelihood. Combining agrofuel production with food production increases the food yield per area, produces extra income, improves agricultural practices and in the end improves African soils . See results on http://www.jatropha.pro/intercropping.htm

I,need more information on this jatropha ijust came across the product am in Nigeria,kindly help. Me out

There is a programe going on right now depending on the state you in.Now no fear of less yield or low income for Jatropha growers.To know more give me a call 0n 07034838300

Being chairman of biofuel & magnetic energies of pakistan. I m vigorously pursuing the sacred cause of promoting green/clean fuel to which jatropha stands the very first source in our country and pakistan has more than 27milion acre marginal land with young traind cheap labor in abundance.

I read this post with interest as it reminded me a completely different story about jatropha. We are here talking about commercial farming of jatropha for international markets. I had in mind small scale culture of jatropha for local uses. The PREP (Programme Regional Energie Pauvrete – UNDP) promoted the establishment of multifunctional platforms in several countries of West Africa. The idea was to implement units providing energy services (battery charging, mills, huskers, pumps …) in rural villages devoid from electricity access. The impact pathways of these programs were supposed to lead toward improved nutrition, development of IGAs and women empowerment. The units were initially driven by diesel engine. And here came the jatropha as a low cost and endogeneous alternative to diesel. In those cases, jatropha was cultivated not as a major crop but on the borders of the plots and produced both energy services and ecosystem services by avoiding erosion and water run-off. After pressing to extract the oil, the compost from the fruit pulp can even be used as fertilizer or to feed livestock.
So yes, there are other ways to think about jatropha and this crop can even be part of an integrated approach toward development…

Respected sirs/ Madam
I was in Jatropha plantations since 2004 to 2010.
i was in charge of 200 acres of jatropha plantations. we had spenta huge money on jatropha plantations in Tamilnadu. The Agriculture University under Dr Paramathma had disappointed us with false hopes that Jatropha could bring a world of prosperity. but at the end of 4 th year i told my management Jatropha isa n absolute failure on yield propositions. had we planted some other trees at least we could have got better results . 100% Jatropha will eat food production

Am amoko babatunde from nigeria in oyo state. I get 6 heactare of lands to do farming but i did,nt get money to buying the land please i need help for money.

2347031606615my mobile telephone number.
I am Jeffy Chijioke Ezeh (facebook.com) a buyer of Jatropha oil from Nigeria. Our company is Safreed Int'l Nig Ltd. ezehezeh2000@hotmail.com
We will buy from any African country, if ur price and jatropha oil is ok.

I NEED TO KHNOW ABOUT THE BAD IMPACT OF JATROPHA FOR LAND .

We are very interested here in Papua New Guinea to grow and farm Jatropha Caucus for Biofuel.
We are ready with Land allocated for the Project and now looking for a Developer or Investor who is willing to come Invest and Develop our land.
Please email me on: tbarkeret@gmail.com, morobeagrofarm@gmail.com or contact me on Mobile: +67579337471

Looking forward to hear and work with you.

Regards

Tombu Barkeret
Port Moresby - Papua New Guinea
Mobile: +67579337471 Email: tbarkeret@g@aol.com

my name is Oluwadamilare pls a Nigerian I had of jatropha a week ago and am intrested in its farming pls i need a market link for jatropher seed i base in osun state.

this world is full of wonders. am ugandan, this plant your talking abt is used for fencing in my village. it multiplies so fast during the rainy season. no one knows any other use for it. am so sup prised it's a biofuel. am sure i can source seeds for whoever is interested. ononeldah10@gmail.com. write to me if u want seeds.

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