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April 02, 2009

Jatropha for biodiesel is not a miracle crop

Jatropha, often hailed as rich source of biodiesel that flourishes in semi-arid areas of Africa, is hard to grow and often fails if farmers lack expertise, an executive of a company developing the crop said.

Vincent Volckaert, the Africa regional director for biofuels technology firm D1 Oils, dismissed the idea jatropha can produce a good harvest in any climatic conditions as is believed by many who invest in large scale production of the crop in Africa.

"If you grow jatropha in marginal conditions, you can expect marginal yields. Jatropha is not a miracle crop: it needs to be cultivated and farmed well to produce a good harvest," he told a conference.

Jatropha is a non-food crop and its oil-rich seeds can be used to produce biodiesel. Supporters argue it can be grown on semi-arid land and so poses less of a threat to food output than other biofuel feedstocks such as grains and vegetable oils.

The Biofuels Association of Zambia (BAZ) said that China had asked the southern African country to plant two-million hectares of jatropha.

D1 Oils has set up research centres to develop and test new varieties of the crop, with a next generation of commercial jatropha plants to be launched in 2010. Volckaert said that in many cases seeds are given out to farmers without any instruction, plantings are done badly or at the wrong time of the year and then not managed properly. He cited a survey of 615 jatropha projects where 90 percent of the plantations were in a bad condition.

"No fertiliser will help if the planting was done badly at the beginning," he said.

Volckaert said that while South Africa is not suited to grow the crop, there were other promising examples on the continent.

Zimbabwe's National Oil Company said this week the country planned to use jatropha to produce up to 10 percent of its fuel needs, or 100-million litres of biodiesel per year, by 2017.

Mozambique has also drafted a strategy for the production of biofuels from the drought-resistant crop.

Volckaert said that even with new technologies, it still takes up to 25 years to mature a jatropha crop, but yields can be doubled over ten years.


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