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February 08, 2010

For farmers in Kenya, jatropha reality fails to live up to the hype

by George Omondi and Jacob Ng’etich

Biofuel has been touted as the panacea to the world’s perennial energy crisis, a silver bullet that would quench the growing global demand for oil with limited negative impact on the environment — a major topic the world over.

As the international oil price rallied towards $150 a barrel in 2008, the developed world turned its attention to idle land in Africa, with numerous European NGOs introducing oil plants like jatropha to farmers saying it could be the continent’s next big thing – a likely principal export and an alternative fuel that could improve the speed of industrialisation.

Such was the excitement in Majiwa, a remote village in the outskirts of Bondo town in Nyanza Province when the international NGOs came knocking in 2006.

With the encouragement of Mr Tor Steiner Rafoss, one of the international bio-diesel agents, the villagers formed the Nam Lolwe Jatropha Caucus for the purpose of pooling resources to promote cultivation of the hitherto foreign oil plant. Mr Rafoss donated seeds to start the jatropha project.

Years since, the hope for a better life among the farmers is fading. They are asking about the promised “ready market” for the wonder plant.

Mr Joseph Odembo of the Nam Lolwe group and a member of the lobby, Action Resort for Change (ARC), the local NGO that invited the international agents, the waiting for the promised “ready market” for the trees is taking too long.

Farmers who abandoned cotton in the 1980s because of delayed payments readily embraced the bio-diesel producing plant.

“We have not been able to find a market for the trees which have been ready for the last two years but farmers are still optimistic that one day a good deal will come and they will be able to see the fruits of their labour,” Odembo said. He Odembo says the 100 members of Nam Lolwe have 6,000 Jatropha plants which have given very good yields but have been keeping the seeds due to lack of a proper market.

“After two years, Mr Rafoss came and bought the seeds at Sh2,000 per kilo and the farmers were so excited, but after that not much has been sold,” said Mr Odembo.

The Majiwa case cuts across the country, especially for those farmers who abandoned their traditional cash and food crops for the untested oil plants.
International NGOs encouraged Africans to turn to oil seed production, sometimes running into problems with the food security campaigners.

In 2008, food policy analysts blamed high food prices partly on the large scale conversion of American corn and soybeans, French sugar beet, Brazilian sugarcane and peanuts from Benin to biofuel.

In Kenya, the farming fraternity rejected the 2008 proposal by Agriculture minister William Ruto to put some 500 acres of Agricultural Development Corporation farms to jatropha production.

The ministry has since declared a policy that restricts biofuels development to arid and semi-arid lands (Asals) where they cannot pose direct competition to food crops.

Mr Benard Muok, a researcher with African Centre for Technology Studies, says about 80 per cent of the total land mass in Kenya is categorised as Asals, where communities dependent on livestock production with semi-sedentary farming, yet most of these lands are suitable for Jatropha production.

“Biofuel production has a great potential to change the face of our Arid and Semi Arid areas because it has a return of Sh66,000 per acre compared to the Sh40,000 per acre from maize fields,” said Mr Isaac Kalua, the founder and chairman of the Green Africa – one of the NGOs that promote oil plant production in the country.

Over the years, the oil fuel bubble has burst with the international petroleum prices tiptoeing at affordable ranges - hitting the rock bottom level of $36 dollars per barrel in 2009 before rising steadily to $83 this week.

To jatropha farmers, the waning global interest in oil plants comes at a time that poor storage of the harvested seeds in the worm-infested region has been blamed for causing losses to farmers

“If a proper market is found for the oil plants (jatropha) then our farmers who have invested in it will be able to benefit from the farming,” said Dr Manase Wasuna the Manager of ARC Kenya.

But even as they wait endlessly for the biofuel money, the Majiwa farmers say interspersing jatropha with crops such as maize or beans have improved their food crop yields. They also experimented with the Jatropha oil for medicinal purposes, with claims it eliminates jiggers.

More importantly, the farmers have found out that the oil is a suitable substitute for paraffin in its raw form.

“It burns two to three times longer than paraffin, and has very little fire hazard,” says Mr Richard Oduor, a farmer from Asembo, 15 kilometres from Majiwa

Industrially, apart from producing bio-fuel, the plant offers glycerin, a raw material for soap-making, while the seed cake is used to make cattle feeds.

Studies show the plant is the most promising for bio diesel due to minimum requirements for inputs and ability to grow in dry land. A report titled, Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels, released by the United Nations Environment Programme last year indicates that while each country has varying needs and impact of biofuels programmes that should guide policy makers, the experiences of Brazil and Malawi is that food and biofuel production can take place in tandem.

Business Daily Africa

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