Jatropha a Lucrative alternative for developing world
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. 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." 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.