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."
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.''
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.
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."