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October 02, 2012

Jatropha boom goes bust

Once upon a time, way back in 2009, a certain person who wishes to remain anonymous attended a jatropha conference somewhere in West Africa. For several days one listened to many esteemed experts from all over the world giving impressive presentations about all the proof they had from their studies that jatropha was definitely the best thing since sliced bread.

Your man Anonymous also gave a presentation, but it went against the conference’s grain by cautioning that it was premature and misleading to tout benefits for which there simply wasn’t enough evidence. Poor Anonymous almost got laughed out of the room. At tea break he was almost accosted by a senior official of the host country’s government, which had invested heavily in jatropha cultivation with the support of its former colonial power. The official made it clear he was neither impressed nor amused by Anonymous’ presentation.

And now, at the end of 2012, a mere three years later but seemingly a lot longer in jatropha years? There seems to be an emerging consensus that jatropha is not what it was once cracked up to be. Anonymous has often wondered what the senior jatropha official of country X would say today about the prematurely heavy investment he confidently assured his government would quickly, handsomely pay off.

Among those to lose millions of dollars on the jatropha gamble have been once brilliant-sounding investors from Britain, Sweden and elsewhere. They were going to make clean, green, politically-correct jatropha biodiesel fortunes in countries as disparate as Ghana in West Africa and Tanzania in East Africa. Almost all these once highly, glowingly publicised investments have gone bust.

The main reason that these jatropha dreams collapsed is very simple- a failure to heed the lessons of a course every farmer has out of necessity taken in the field-Common Sense 101. Saying a crop is drought tolerant, hardy and can survive in harsh conditions is very different from saying that plant will produce optimally or profitably in those conditions. Incredibly, there were many entrepreneurs who were able to sweet talk normally hard-headed investors out of millions of dollars in capital for jatropha projects without asking the basic questions of Farming Common Sense 101.

Anonymous was so surprised and disillusioned by the jatropha recklessness that he has never been able to be as knee-jerkingly excited at news of any big new farming investment that it is claimed is going to easily, quickly make its promoters millionaires.

If only farming, business and life were that easy.

The article that prompted these jatropha musings is not a particularly deep treatment of the subject, but it is mildly interesting. And as it points out, the busting of the jatropha boom does not mean that the crop does not still have a useful future.

African Agriculture

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