- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

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.

European environment ministers said yesterday they plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions 20 percent by 2020, adding that they were ready to go to 30 percent if other industrialized nations matched their efforts. There was no agreement on how the cuts would be achieved or how they would be divvied up among member countries.

Ghana, an English-speaking West African nation, has earmarked $1.6 million in government funds to help establish jatropha plantations.

A Norwegian company has been running ads in the state-owned newspaper looking for land to use for jatropha crops, and Ghana recently received $35 million from the government of India for jatropha research.

A ton of crude jatropha sells for about $300, according to a report prepared for the Ghana Chamber of Mines, which is pushing jatropha production as an alternative to illegal, small-scale gold mining. Farmers could make about $150 per acre, a 50 percent increase over harvests of other cash crops such as tobacco.

Analysts predict that experienced workers can hand-pick more than 65 pounds of jatropha seed pods in an hour, translating into more than 13 pounds of pressed crude, or an hourly wage of nearly $2.

Considering that more than 300 million Africans live on less than a dollar a day, jatropha could help farmers lift themselves out of poverty, something the world has already spent billions trying to achieve with little success.

Still, Ghanaian farmers are not all that interested in jatropha.

“The way things are now, it has potential, but we haven’t seen anything for now,” said Anthony Mainoo, agricultural technical coordinator at Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which used a $50,000 U.N. Development Program grant to persuade 3,000 farmers to set aside an acre each for jatropha production three years ago.

When the time came to harvest, there was no one willing to buy the seeds.

“We have no real information on the yield in Ghana, no sense of how the money will flow, no idea,” he said.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much African land is currently being cultivated with jatropha, but there are fields slated for planting in Benin, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, plus acreage in Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa.

“It’s really like gold. You have to put money into it to make it,” said Daniel Osei-Bonsu, environmental director of AngloGold Ashanti, a South African-owned gold mine operating on 160,000 acres in Ghana’s lush central region.

A year ago, Mr. Osei-Bonsu and his team cleared 56 acres and planted jatropha into ground he compares to asphalt.

Four months later, it was producing its first seeds.

With all analyses pointing to the fact that the AngloGold Ashanti gold vein will be depleted by 2016, Mr. Osei-Bonsu said he is determined to find an alternate source of income for the mine’s 3,000 workers.

“If we can demonstrate it can give not big money, but satisfactory money on a regular basis, rather than on a seasonal basis, farmers will pick it up,” he said.

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