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Miracle bio-fuel crop set for big comeback across Africa

By Mark Oloo | Published Sat, December 31st 2016 at 00:00, Updated December 30th 2016 at 18:32 GMT +3
Prof Abdelkader Outzourhit, one of the lead researchers at the Jatropha experimental farm in Morocco. (Photo: Courtesy)

Kenya is among countries to benefit from a five-year regional project to scale up production of jatropha trees in commercial quantities.

In the wake of renewed clamour for environmental conservation, jatropha farming is gathering pace in Africa where countries are basking in the glow of the continent's ambitious green energy plan unveiled last month at the UN-led climate change talks in Morocco.

Jatropha is rich in oil and in Europe and Asia, governments are already enacting laws to combine it with petroleum as diesel fuel. Most African countries say they are keen to follow suit.

This wonder crop is not new to Kenya. When it was first introduced three decades ago, many farmers in areas such Makueni and Malindi opted for it and abandoned traditional crops. The glory was, however, short-lived after they failed to get quick returns. It had also displaced staple crops, leading to food insecurity.

There were also issues with the crop being farmer-unfriendly, made worse by inadequate agricultural education. In less than 10 years, the crop fell out of favour with most rural farmers.

John Makau, a farmer in Kibwezi, says he waited for too long to make money out of his jatropha farm.

"It was unbearable. When I planted the crop in my five-acre farm, I knew the returns would take care of all my financial needs. I was wrong. Nothing came my way and I didn't know where to take the seeds," Mr Makau tells Smart Harvest.

But if the latest clamour to promote the use of jatropha through research, outreaches and financing is anything to go by, then the crop, dubbed the "green fuel", is set for a big comeback in Kenya and rest of Africa.

New customised versions have emerged from decades of study and new varieties have been developed in Singapore, which have now been optimised for growing in Africa and Europe, with high and sustainable inputs.

The new five-year project promises to be a game-changer. Implemented by the Tansit Regional Centre for Development under University of Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech, Morocco, the new jatropha research drive is carrying out more trials with various genotypes. Successful ones will be rolled out to other African countries in record time.

Morocco, Egypt and Algeria are among countries that have begun benefiting from the initiative, which has an initial budget of 1.82 million Euros (Sh195 million).

Head of the project Prof Ahmed Cheliboune said the superior types of the crop have the capacity to produce up to 1,000 litres of oil per hectare and the harvesting can be staggered depending on the density of trees.

"Other parameters may affect the oil content but in an ideal situation, we expect between 35 and 30 per cent oil in the seeds of jatropha," Prof Cheliboune told journalists who recently visited an experimental jatropha farm in western Morocco, on the Atlantic coast, near the city of Essaouira.

What led to jatropha failure in Kenya was the use of non-improved planting materials. But now through selective breeding, there is much better seed productivity and superior seed yield, seed kernel content, seed oil content, fatty acid composition and phosphorus content. The research project aims at making more findings.

The rugged shrub thrives in a wide range of terrains, including wasteland, sandy and saline soils. It can survive up to three years without rain. It does not need pesticide application and has the capacity to control desertification. Its oil-rich seed can be used to produce bio-fuel as well as cream, oil and soap, among other benefits.

According to the researches, in jatropha lies the opportunity for Kenya to address its energy shortfalls. The country has large arable lands for growing the plant, which can survive under dry and harsh weather. Jatropha farm has a lifespan of 40 years. A hectare produces seeds of up to 1.5 tonnes, 3.5 tonnes and five tonnes in the third, fourth and fifth years.

Prof Abdelkader Outzourhit, one of the lead researchers at the jatropha experimental farm in Morocco, said they were doing trials with plants from Mali, India and Mexico. He said upon conclusion of the research, they would now partner with rural communities in the final rollout.

Already, they are working with a local women's cooperative society to extract diesel from the jatropha seed as well as lotions, creams and other products. He says it will take some time before they begin commercial processing of jatropha seeds in Morocco. However, a similar crop, Argan, with the same features, is being processed locally.

"We are modifying the genes to see if they can adapt into a given climate. The genotype from Mali is ideal here. After this, the success story can be rolled out in other Africa countries," Prof Outzourhit said.