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Croton nuts: Africa's new biofuel that literally grows on trees
Kieron Monks, CNN
Updated 7:02 AM ET, Wed December 28, 2016
The history of biofuel production in Africa is marked with expensive and
The much-hyped jatropha crop saw millions of dollars and vast tracts of
land squandered, while the production of palm oil has been widely
criticized for association with environmental damage and human rights
But there is a new hope for the field. The Croton megalocarpus tree is
common throughout much of East and Central Africa, and until now it has
been used for little more than firewood.
The nuts of the tree have been shown to contain high concentrations of
oil and protein, and they are now being used to produce a fuel that
could serve as a clean alternative to diesel.
With an abundant supply of croton nuts available at minimal cost, a new
industry is emerging with sky-high ambitions.
In 2012, serial entrepreneur Alan Paul established Eco Fuels Kenya (EFK)
to explore the potential of croton, following early research that
suggested promise. His company is now the driving the movement to bring
croton biofuel to the mainstream.
The business took a low-key approach at first, in contrast to
high-budget flops such as jatropha.
"(Paul) said we can grow organically by sourcing what is already there
from one of the most common trees," says EFK Managing Director Myles
Katz. "We can buy nuts from farmers so they get an income and we have a
business model that does not require $10 million of funding and a big
plantation to get off the ground."
EFK put out radio ads to attract local entrepreneurs into partnerships,
who assembled teams of smallholders to supply the nuts. When suppliers
realized their previously useless trees had become an easy and reliable
source of income, the network rapidly expanded.
This has enabled EFK to double production each year, says Katz, up to
1,000 tons of nuts this year from 500 tons in 2015. The company is now
in a position to scale up the operation, without having planted a single
Producing croton nut oil is a low-tech, low-energy process compared with
traditional fuel manufacturing.
"It is comparable to any other nut or oil pressing facility," says Katz.
"We modify the equipment to work on croton nuts but essentially we are
buying machines used with walnuts or macadamia nuts."
Much of the fuel is sold to local businesses that run generators, such
as tourist camps.
The company has also branched into selling by-products of the nuts,
including seedcake from the pressed nut as poultry feed, and organic
fertilizer from the shells. This offers insurance at a time investors
remain wary of biofuels, says Katz.
"The 'unknown' (element) is hard for investors," he says. "We are not an
oil-only business, and we can stand on different parts of the business
at different times."
Grand plans, local roots
Having local networks of suppliers and agents is key to the EFK business
model, and a critical challenge for the company is to maintain these
networks while expanding across the country and beyond.
"We have a completely local approach," says Katz. "Everything we source,
process and sell should be within 100 kilometers of the factory."
The company plans to maintain this approach while creating up to five
new factories in Kenya and several more in neighboring countries such as
Tanzania in the coming years.
EFK is also planning a first foray into an "orchard model" of planting
its own trees on a 500-acre plot in 2017, that will allow the company to
test and push the limits of croton capacity.
"There is an interesting topic of crop efficiency," says Katz. "An
indigenous tree with access to normal rainfall might produce 100
kilograms of nuts a year. But the optimum trees will produce over 300
kilograms...The 'orchard model' can change outcomes dramatically."
Ripe for success
Croton can succeed where other biofuels have failed, according to Dr.
Gerald Kafuku, principal research officer of the Tanzania Commission for
Science and Technology, who has published several papers on the
properties of croton oil.
"I can say that croton is one of the most promising sources of biofuel,"
he says. "It can give advantages in the form of biodiesel or straight
oil, and as a 'carbon sink' for afforestation."
Kafuku believes that only a lack of funding for research and development
is holding croton back from the mainstream. He adds that the region
urgently needs such solutions.
"East Africa is among the areas where there is significant environmental
degradation," he says. "New biofuels such as croton can add to the
alternative sources of renewable energy as well as providing for more
planting of trees."
Croton can also avoid the ethical pitfalls of other biofuels by
benefiting local communities, according to Rodrigo Ciannella, head of
the biofuels program at the World Agroforestry Centre.
"(Croton) is providing value from a natural resource that is already
abundant in the country and is largely wasted," he says. "Farmers are
already benefiting from receiving additional income...and they could get
even more by having access to other components of the value chain such
With global demand for biofuels set to increase steadily, Katz believes
it is a matter of time before oil giants enter the croton market and the
nut becomes a major industry that can rival fossil fuels.
"I like to tell people that croton will be a coffee or tea type of value
chain," he says. "There will be lots of competitors and regional
processing all over East Africa."
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