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Published on May 4th, 2009 | by Dave Harcourt


Jatropha’s Failure as a Biodiesel Feedstock Opens Opportunities in Rural Electrification

Only a few years ago Jatropha was considered to be the wonder biodiesel feedstock suitable for production by small scale farmers in poor soils and arid countries. It has not lived up to the hype and it will be years before it can compete agronomically with soya and it is not scalable to the refining industry’s needs under small scale farming. Small scale rural farmers are more easily integrated into Jatropha based electrification in underdeveloped rural areas.

The Jatropha Spin

Jatropha curcas, also known as the Physic nut, is a perennial poisonous shrub. It is an uncultivated non-food wild-species that grows easily in hedges and scattered around homesteads.  It was spread from Central America to Africa by Portuguese traders who introduced it as a hedge material and a source of oil for light. It can grow in poor soils and arid areas and as such does not compete with food crops. The seeds contain 27-40% oil that can be converted to a high-quality biodiesel fuel that can be used in a standard diesel engine.

These characteristics lead biodiesel refiners to conclude that Jatropha would be an ideal crop to establish in tropical and subtropical Africa, where it could be easily grown by small scale farmers. Hopefully, developing the rural areas while providing a cheap oil for the West’s biodiesel refineries.

This lead companies like D1 Oil into large investments in refining plant, which it eventually turned out was not viable and had to be sold off. It also resulted in euphoria, that swept through the system as the food for fuel debate intensified and the shortcoming of soya and cereal based biofuels became more evident.

The Reality Falls Short of The Spin

Vincnt Volckaerert presented a paper at the 4th Annual African Biofuels Conference in April 2009, describing D1 Oil’s plans to develop Jatropha cultivars that could produce the yields and oil contents necessary for biodiesel production. He very clearly stated that when Jatropha grows on arid and infertile ground the yields and oil content are are not acceptable. Growing Jatropha as a cultivated crop in fertile, irrigated land increases yeild and oil content but makes it more susceptible to pests.

He further noted that to date Jatropha has been grown from wild seeds or first generation selections based on limited trials. D1 Oils therefore formed D1 Oils Plant Science Limited (DOPSL) and is expecting to release second generation seeds with much improved characteristics in 2010 or 2011.

All this makes it inconceivable that Jatropha will offer small scale rural farmers any real opportunity to become the major supplier to the biofuels industry. Large well fertilised, irrigated and maintained plantations run by multinational commercial farmers will produce at a cost that farmer producing a few tons a year using inter-cropping will not be able to match.

So What are they doing in Mali

But there is still an opportunity to use existing Jatropha plants and to support an expansion in production by running pure vegetable oil (PVO) generators on Jatropa oil, to supply electricity to off-grid rural communities.

In Mali, where 99 % of the rural population lacks electricity, the Garalo project focuses on biofuel development based on Jatropha because village natural resources (land and Jatropha) are processed and used to provide energy security while keeping value addition in the communities. Inter-cropping with food crops limits the negative impact of Jatropha production on food security.

The system is based on the Garalo Jatropha Producers’ Cooperative which supports small scale farmers growing Jatropha and ACCESS, a private power company that provides a guaranteed market for the farmers. This structure was established with a grant from AMADER (a para-statal company in charge of rural electrification) and an international non-governmental organisation, the FACT foundation, but is designed to be able to run sustainably.

ACCESS has a capacity of 300 kW and a distribution network of approximately 13 km that currently supplies 247 households. Households pay for connection, consumption and make a contribution towards street lighting. The fact that payment defaults are under 10% indicates that there is a real demand for electricity in these rural areas.

It is projected that the demand will grow and allow the 600 ha currently cultivated to grow to 10,000 ha, which could supply all ACCESS’s fuel needs. ACCESS is already able to cover all its recurring costs from income, boding well for the business model to be replicated widely.

Photo Credit: By edwardyanquen on flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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About the Author

I am Dave Harcourt and have recently stopped full time employment. I am a chemical engineer and have worked most of my life in various food processing and brewing activities at CSIR, one of Africa's largest research organisations. After a life in formal employment, the last 15 of which were focused on a range of agroprocessing activities in Africa I am retiring and intend to spend some of my time contracting / working / writing / thinking in and on Agribusiness.

17 Responses to Jatropha’s Failure as a Biodiesel Feedstock Opens Opportunities in Rural Electrification

  1. Hi Dave,

    We have been working on sustainable cultivation of Jatropha and Pongamia in semi arid conditions on unused land for the last six years and have achieved meaningful outcomes.

    If you are interested, I would like to share our experience.


    Sreenivas Ghatty

  2. Thank you for your input Sreenivas, I am sure you have got good results that suite your objectives, but are these not very different to what is needed to run a large scale biofuels industry competitively – Its my contention that that’s not yet available. D1 oil built their first investment on an expectation of jatropha feedstock from the 3rd world and had to back track and rework their business model, I am also interested in how the parameter “arid” is captured in agronomic results.

  3. sm hudson says:

    Informative article setting out the juxtaposition of large and small scale development and production challenges for this fuel source.

  4. Fred Boadu says:

    I have an 800-acre alnd in africa that I would like to cultivate jatropha for all its uses. I am seeking for potential joint investros, and would be glad to talk to anyone interested.


  5. Jamil Akhtar says:

    Hi !

    I along with couple of my friend have decided to do some social work for the upliftment of the very poor people living in one of the remotest district Purulia in india. Purulia happens to be one poorest district in the country. The climate is semi arid and not fertile for tradional cultivation. We want to help the villagers by imparting education, mass awreness and employment. Need some details how Jatropha can be used oil to produce electricity. Many villages do not have any electricity in this district. Can you elaborate on this / The prcoess as well equipment etc.


    Jamil Akhtar
    +9198363 03555

  6. Dr. Duncan Earle says:

    While it is true the genetics are still in flux, it is not the case, as the article suggests, that small producers lack of economy of scale and cannot compete significantly in a global market. Lots of places have sufficient water and soil to produce reasonably well, and often on land not suited for large scale agriculture, and in situations where there is insufficient infrastructure for mechanization, even if there is the cash. In labor rich, cash poor, sun rich tropics, smallholders when well organized have a competitive advantage, and are more environmentally and socially responsible than large scale farms as well. Research has shown again and again that smallholders are more efficient producers, when they can get their produce marketed fairly, than the large farms, and especially in poor nations this is the case. Jatropha will be perfected, just as the creativity of its uses as cited in the end of the article, discussing local electric plants. But organizing smallholders is key to this new source of energy, not the big boys, because only the peasant farmer can create the biodiversity, crop diversification, the handling labor, the informed social community and the longitudinal “permanence” (sustainability) that this source of energy works best with.

  7. Thanks Duncan. I don’t really agree with all your views, but these kind of discussions need in the end to be looked at for a particular place and circumstance.

    I am sure Jatropha will be perfected as you say but in the meantime many people will see their expectations, enflamed by the unrealistic optimism of implementors, failing to be realised. So far, its especially the very poorest who can’t afford risk who suffer.

    I still feel that the needs of a normal industrially sized refinery, say 100 million tons/year, is not achievable through contract growing by small farmers. It does work for brewing or cotton ginning but the refinery industry is orders of magnitude larger.

    Thats why appropriate uses matched to particular circumstances seem to me to be where Jatropha will play its role.

  8. Marie Minichino says:

    We are growning Jatropha on the big island in hawaii and want to look at creating a bio disel plant using the product. What is the extraction proccess that can be use-can you use a gin(cotton) to express the oil? What about the toxicity of the shell of the seed. We are concerned about any toxic left over products and want to use as much of the plant as possible

    Thank you for any help

  9. ananda says:

    hi everyone i am ananda from nepal . we r just strting jatropha plantation in my nation . we have 20lakha hecter westeg land . we have alotoff man power also but we needs invester . if aney invester intrested to invest plz contectme . or my govt. my email add ananda

  10. Pau says:

    Hello Dave, If what you say is true, the proposals for investments of Blu Sky (, offering returns above 20%, should be impossible.

  11. Flory Nyamwoga says:

    In DR Congo, we are planning to use jatropha in rural areas as an alternative source of domestic energy to contribute to reduce emissions due to deforestation and degradation (REDD). Extracted oil will be used as fuel in stoves, and the residues will be pressed in briquettes, which can also be used as domestic fuel in replacement of charcoal. We really hope this strategy will positively impact on forest conservation in DR Congo, where there is plenty of land in all villages.

  12. Luis Osorno says:

    Hi, Marie, sorry to have come upon your comment so late, and probably by now you already have the answer. Extracting jatropha oil is very simple and should not be an expensive proposition. You do not use the cotton gin, but the cottonseed press, or expeller, can be used for jatropha also. If you are interested, I could advise you on this at no charge, I am very interested in starting up new jatropha plantations in South America, so my payback could be having access to your agronomical experiences. My background is solidly in oilseed extraction, during 25 years. Please write me at or leave a posting here. Best regards.

  13. Luis Osorno says:

    Also, for the residues, you can turn them into brickettes, as Flory mentions, and that will sove your problem.

  14. Luis Osorno says:

    Also, Jamil, I could advise you on the processing of the seeds for producing oil and then on to producing electricity. I will try and call you.

  15. How much the farmer gain benefit from growing Jatropha than growing other food crops?

  16. benjamin veneracion says:

    growing jatropha is an on-off project here in the philippines. my company have planted around 20 hectares 2 years ago. we are looking for jatropha oil buyers. we can expand our jatropha plantations to more than 1000 hectares if the offer is viable.

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