When oil grows on trees

The First National Conference & Exhibition on Jatropha Curcas was held at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in July 2006. The conference was hosted by the Vanilla Development Foundation (VDF), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF), and ICRAF’s Trees on Farms Network (TOFNET): the primary objective was to set up a national task force and synchronized supply chain for jatropha biodiesel production, and to plan the direction of future activities.

So what is this Jatropha?
Jatropha is a genus of approximately 175 succulents, shrubs and trees, from the family Euphorbiaceae. As an alternative to fossil fuel, the plant holds tremendous potential. It originated in South America, where it was used as medicine. In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors introduced jatropha to Africa and India. It now grows from the forests of Brazil to the tropical islands of Fiji.

The jatropha’s deceitfully luscious yellow fruit are poisonous. But, they do contain glossy black seeds with an oil content of 37% (up to 40% under optimal conditions). When crushed, the seeds yield an inedible oil that can be combusted as biofuel. For centuries, jatropha oil has been used in lamps in homes, and there was no concentrated attempt to promote the plant as a source of oil for fuel. Until now.

Why jatropha?
The jatropha plant is drought-resistant, thrives even in desert climates and can grow on any type of soil. It does not threaten food crops. Requiring minimum rainfall, inputs and care, jatropha can be propagated from cuttings or germinated from seeds. It is neither attacked by insect pests nor browsed on by livestock. The plant grows quickly - forming a thick live hedge a month from planting, starting to yield from the second year, and continuing to do so for 40 years. If irrigated, jatropha will produce seeds year-round.

Not only is the tree important in stabilization of soils, erosion control, reclamation of arid and semi-arid lands, as hedge control for livestock and propping support for the vanilla plant - but it also yields a number of products other than oil. They include a protein-rich meal that remains after extraction (excellent organic manure), and the leaf and bark are used for various industrial and pharmaceutical uses, and as press cake. The oil has insecticidal qualities, and the seeds are also used for soap- and candle-making.

When oil – and money – grow on trees
Jatropha has tremendous potential for improving household income amongst the rural poor of the developing world. Yet this potential is untapped due to a number of challenges: inadequate information and know-how on industrial oil production and marketing, and reduced land sizes that push farmers into concentrating on ‘important’ crops that out-compete jatropha. Still, the efforts of organizations such as VDF are helping to promote cultivation in East Africa.

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