ACCRA, Ghana - Jatropha, a scruffy bush producing dry, black nuts, is triggering a scramble for land in Africa, with Norwegian, Indian and British companies looking to producing clean-burning biodiesel for cars and trucks.
It’s not much in the looks department, but jatropha has a big advantage over alternatives. The nuts can’t be eaten because they are poisonous.
Long used as nothing more than living fences meant to hold back the encroaching Sahara and Kalahari deserts, jatropha oil, the evidence shows, burns cleaner than fossil fuels.
That, in turn, has experimental plantations popping up in Africa from Kenya to Ghana to South Africa.
“You can’t keep from winning on this one,” said Jack Holden, director of GoldStar Biodiesel, a self-described “serial entrepreneur.” He is one of a small number of businessmen, based in Ghana, who hope to profit from jatropha by helping investors find places for their money.
As a natural defense against erosion and desertification, jatropha already is a darling of the development world. Plant it once and it will grow for 50 years, even in some of the poorest soil conditions on the planet.
When drought descends, jatropha bushes keep producing.
Thousands of rural African women’s groups have been trained to hand crush the seeds, turning the resulting oil into soap and the organic waste into fertilizer cakes.
But the oil inside its seed also burns with one-fifth the emissions of conventional fuel.
With the growing attention of major oil distributors, jatropha is the little plant that could lift African farmers from lives of poverty and the continent into a fuel oil producer.
That’s a lot of pressure on one lowly weed.
It could, however, go the way of the emu farm: just another expensive farming fad that went bust instead of boom.
“You would think the way people talk that it’s very easy to go out there and plant jatropha, but we figure it will take about $6 million to do ,” said Mr. Holden, whose company is promising to tie community development to biodiesel profits.
Scientists estimate that if even a quarter of the continent’s arable land was ploughed into jatropha plantations, output would surpass 20 million barrels a day, almost enough to satisfy the U.S. appetite for oil.
But it’s Europe that’s driving the thirst for biodiesel. The European Union has said they will use 5.75 percent biodiesel in fuel products by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020, meaning that within four years, the EU will need billions of gallons of biodiesel.