New York Times, September 9, 2007
Malis Farmers Discover a Weeds Potential Power By LYDIA POLGREEN
KOULIKORO, Mali When Suleiman Diarra Bananis brother said that the
poisonous black seeds dropping from the seemingly worthless weed that had grown
around his family farm for decades could be used to run a generator, or even a
car, Mr. Banani did not believe him. When he suggested that they intersperse
the plant, until now used as a natural fence between rows of their regular
crops edible millet, peanuts, corn and beans he thought his older brother,
Dadjo, was crazy.
Candace Feit for The New York Times
Suleiman Diarra Banani is now growing jatropha on his family farm in
I thought it was a plant for old ladies to make soap, he said.
But now that a plant called jatropha is being hailed by scientists and policy
makers as a potentially ideal source of biofuel, a plant that can grow in
marginal soil or beside food crops, that does not require a lot of fertilizer
and yields many times as much biofuel per acre planted as corn and many other
potential biofuels. By planting a row of jatropha for every seven rows of
regular crops, Mr. Banani could double his income on the field in the first
year and lose none of his usual yield from his field.
Poor farmers living on a wide band of land on both sides of the equator are
planting it on millions of acres, hoping to turn their rockiest, most
unproductive fields into a biofuel boom. They are spurred on by big oil
companies like BP and the British biofuel giant D1 Oils, which are investing
millions of dollars in jatropha cultivation.
The New York Times
Jatropha grows in places like Koulikoro with little rainfall.
Countries like India, China, the Philippines and Malaysia are starting huge
plantations, betting that jatropha will help them to become more energy
independent and even export biofuel. It is too soon to say whether jatropha
will be viable as a commercial biofuel, scientists say, and farmers in India
are already expressing frustration that after being encouraged to plant huge
swaths of the bush they have found no buyers for the seeds.
But here in Mali, one of the poorest nations on earth, a number of
small-scale projects aimed at solving local problems the lack of electricity
and rural poverty are blossoming across the country to use the existing
supply of jatropha to fuel specially modified generators in villages far off
the electrical grid.
We are focused on solving our own energy problems and reducing poverty,
said Aboubacar Samaké, director of a government project aimed at promoting
renewable energy. If it helps the world, that is good, too.
Jatropha originated in Central America and is believed to have been spread
around the world by Portuguese explorers. In Mali, a landlocked former French
colony, it has been used for decades by farmers as a living fence that keeps
grazing animals off their fields the smell and the taste of the plant repel
grazing animals and a guard against erosion, keeping rich topsoil from being
blown away by the harsh Sahel winds. The Royal Tropical Institute, a nonprofit
research institution in Amsterdam that has been working to develop jatropha as
a commercial biofuel, estimates that there are 22,000 linear kilometers, or
more than 13,000 miles, of the bush in Mali.
Jatrophas proponents say it avoids the major pitfalls of other biofuels,
which pose significant environmental and social risks. Places that struggle to
feed their populations, like Mali and the rest of the arid Sahel region, can
scarcely afford to give up cultivable land for growing biofuel crops. Other
potential biofuels, like palm oil, have encountered resistance by
environmentalists because plantations have encroached on rain forests and other
But jatropha can grow on virtually barren land with relatively little
rainfall, so it can be planted in places where food does not grow well. It can
also be planted beside other crops farmers grow here, like millet, peanuts and
beans, without substantially reducing the yield of the fields; it may even help
improve output of food crops by, among other things, preventing erosion and
keeping animals out.
Other biofuels like ethanol from corn and sugar cane require large amounts of
water and fertilizer, and factory farming in some cases consumes substantial
amounts of petroleum, making the environmental benefits limited, critics say.
But jatropha requires no pesticides, Mr. Samaké said, little water other than
rain and no fertilizer beyond the nutrient-rich seed cake left after oil is
pressed from its nuts.
The plant is promising enough that companies across the world are looking at
planting millions of acres of jatropha in the next few years, in places as far
flung as Brazil, China, India and Swaziland. A company based in Singapore has
announced plans to plant two million hectares, about 4.9 million acres, of
jatropha in the Philippines.
Here in Mali, a Dutch entrepreneur, Hugo Verkuijl, has started a company with
the backing of investors and assistance from the Dutch government, to produce
biodiesel from jatropha seeds.
Mr. Verkuijl, 39, an economist who has worked for nonprofit groups, is part
of a new breed of entrepreneurs who are marrying the traditional aims of aid
groups working in Africa with a capitalist ethos they hope will bring longevity
to their efforts.
An aid project will live or die by its funders, Mr. Verkuijl said, but a
business has momentum and a motive to keep going, even if its founders move
His company, Mali Biocarburant, is partly owned by the farmers who will grow
the nuts, something he said would help the business to succeed by giving the
farmers a stake.
It takes about four kilograms (about 8.8 pounds) of seeds to make a liter of
oil, and Mr. Verkuijl will sign contracts with farmers to buy the seeds in
bulk. The fuel he produces will cost about the same as regular diesel, he said
more than $1 a liter, which is about 1.06 liquid quarts. He will also return
the nutrient-rich seed cake, left after the seeds are pressed for oil, to the
farmers to use as fertilizer. He said he hoped to produce 100,000 liters of
biodiesel this year and 600,000 a year by the third year.
Even if jatropha proves a success in Mali, it is still not without risks. If
farmers come to see it as more valuable than food crops, they could cripple the
countrys food production.
These kinds of worries led a recent United Nations report on biofuels to
conclude that the benefits to farmers are not assured, and may come with
increased costs, the report said. At their worst, biofuel programs can also
result in a concentration of ownership that could drive the worlds poorest
farmers off their land and into deeper poverty.
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