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