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Can jatropha growers deliver?

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Violeta Sithole, with her son on her back, prepares her field to plant beans. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
Violeta Sithole, with her son on her back, prepares her field to plant beans. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

When the lights went out at 9pm last Wednesday with a loud click, I was just finishing up in the shower and was a little late getting out in time to find my flashlight. I was in a comfortable concrete house in the village of Inhassune, Mozambique, recently vacated by the South African manager of a 250-acre jatropha plantation run by ESV Group. Since he and the rest of the officials had cleared out, there was no electricity unless you can buy the fuel to run the generator, which costs about $10 an hour. I paid for three hours a night, from six to nine.

Jatropha trees produce seeds you can press to make biodiesel: it is one of the new biofuels we are hearing so much about as an alternative to oil. Oxfam is looking at how growing biofuel crops affects poor agricultural communities, and I interviewed a few farmers to see what they have to say about it all.

So if biofuels are so important to our future energy needs, why is this plantation out of business? The company is a victim of the recent economic downturn. It is leaving over a thousand workers from Inhassune and other villages in a dilemma: the local government officials say they must keep working while ESV and the government look for another company to buy the operation. But the workers have not been paid for 14 months. Many are struggling along on one meal a day, and breaking rocks into gravel to sell to construction companies for $1.50 a day. “The government said when a new company is established they will pay the back wages,” says Enrique Jorge Santos, 50, the field manager. The workers don’t seem too optimistic: His staff of 750 is now down to 50. 

The ESV project is planting jatropha on an old cotton plantation. Although the unpaid workers now lack money to buy seeds, tools, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs for their own fields, at least they still have their land. About four hours south of Inhassune, the village chief of Nzeve, 137 people in the rolling, coastal hills near the resort town of Bilene, was told by the government that each of the farmers had to hand over about six acres (80 percent of each farmer’s land) for a jatropha project planting 49,000 acres. Working on the plantation would offset any loss of food production: They can buy food with their salary, right? This seems reasonable until the company runs into cash flow problems and lays off workers.

Violeta Sithole, 47, worked in the jatropha nursery, but recently lost her job. “They were going to give us jobs, a school, electricity…but we are not seeing any of it,” she says. “Now that I am no longer working we need more money and we are not growing enough in our field.

“All we eat is cassava.”

Despite all the disappointment, people in both communities really want the plantations to succeed. It is so difficult to get a wage-paying job, any prospect of earning cash is really attractive. Many poor villages will agree to almost anything, so the government and companies can take a gamble on jatropha, sharing the risk with local farmers who may not understand the risk nor be able to recover if the scheme fails.

And if they do manage to produce biofuel oils, what about some energy for the villages? In Inhassune, one woman we spoke with who is surviving on growing maize and breaking rocks says, “When we had meetings with the company, they said they will make the oil, but they never said they would provide any energy for the community.”

The jatropha plant produces an oil seed used for biodiesel fuel. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
The jatropha plant produces an oil seed used for biodiesel fuel. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

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    Jatropha curcas is mainly cultivated for extraction of biodiesel and is one of the best sources of biofuels. In studies of various biofuels, one hectare of Jatropha Curcas yields 6-8 MT of seeds . One ton of Jatropha Curcas seeds yields 300kg oil products and 700 kg oil cake.It has the potential to become one of the world’s key energy crops.

    Jatropha’s ability to grow in marginal land makes it an attractive feedstock option and hence can be considered as a productive option to replace fossil fuel technology.Jatropha Curcas is resistant to drought and can be planted even in the desert climates, and it thrives on any type of soil, grows almost anywhere; in sandy, gravelly and saline soils.

    Jatropha Propagation is easy.Jatropha Curcas growth is rapid; forms a thick live hedge after only a month’s planting.Jatropha Curcas starts yielding from the second year onwards and continues for 40 years.

    Jatropha based biofuel will be a viable energy source in the aviation sector.. Air New Zealand’s successful completion of a commercial airliner that partially run on jatropha biofuel makes it an interesting choice as a fuel in aviation industry.

    To explore more opportunities on Jatropha, See our report on Jatropha here –

  2.'charles wong

    Hello Chris,

    for jatropha curcas to mature,will take 3 to 4 years, if their land are planted with Jatropha curcas only ( 2,500 per hectre), then the company will not have income for at least the first two years,so,with no cash flow,how can they continue.
    Perhaps ,the solution could be using 15% of the land to plant cash crop for food, 15 % to plant various grass for goats or cattle to feed on, 20 % of the land for raising goats or cattle, leaving around 50% for jatropha Curcas. Please contact me,so we can discuss further. I also have our farm planted with Jatropha Curcas in Mindanao, Philippines. wishing you a Merry christmas.
    Best wishes, charles

  3. Chris Hufstader

    Charles thanks for these suggestions. I think the plantations I visited ran into cash flow problems because their planned sources of finance fell through when the global economic crisis hit. After I wrote this piece I learned that the ESV Group had sold its operation in Inhassune to an Italian partnership, hopefully their pockets will be deep enough to keep everything going until their plants start producing. In the other case, I believe the company intends to secure its own financing and press forward, I hope they hire back those who were laid off.

    I have also heard Mindanao is a good place to grow jatropha, good luck with your endeavour.

    Chris Hufstader

  4.'Alessandro Berti

    Dear Mr. Hufstader,

    the italian company name is SAB S.r.l. a JV between two big italian industrial group. I’m the business developement manager, and I invite you to visit the farm again soon.

    All the problems related to the unpayed salaries14 months) has been solved by us.

    Now the farm is starting again to get in to operations and the workers will be again on the field very soon.

    Please feel free to contact me for any further information.

    with kind regards

    Alessandro Berti



    I think that jatropha is the ideal feedstock because it grows on marginal land so the food / fuel security debate is not an issue…

    Article shows how intercroping works!

    Here is another short article showing you how easy it is to refine Crude Jatropha Oil into Bio Diesel without any complicated machinery!

    We all need to be aware of how clean green biofuel feedstocks like jatropha can help fuel sustainable transport!


  6.'Zambia Alpha One LLP

    Congratulations on a fantastic blog!

    Jatropha has been a contraversial subject in Africa for many years now here are some Kenyan farmers showing support for Jatropha Plantations

    Most of the greedy people who are not African who want the biodiesel grow monoculture plantations and as we all know jatropha cannot be eaten!

    This article gives some good questions to ask if you are being offered an “investment oppertunity” by anyone in Africa like “Dr” Peter McHendry who has run scams in Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia where I invested!


  7.'Professor Ashwani Kumar

    People have jumped into Jatropha growing without having knowledge to grow it and they lose.
    If only they involve scientists who know the subject it can happen
    Ashwani Kumar

    A) Books

    1. Arya H.C. and Kumar Ashwani ( 1972). Microbiology and Lichens (Hindi edition) Rajasthan Hindi Granth Academy Jaipur 145 pp.
    2. Kant U and Kumar Ashwani (1973). Botnay Practical Panchsheel Publications , Jaipur.110 p. 110
    3. Kumar Ashwani and Shikha Roy (2006). Plant biotechnology and its applications in tissue culture. I.K. International pp 307.

    4. Kumar Ashwani and Sudhir Sopory (2008). Recent advances in plant biotechnology and its applications. I.K. International , New Delhi. Pp 718.
    5. Neumann, Karl-Hermann, Kumar, Ashwani, Imani, Jafargholi (2009) Plant Cell and Tissue Culture – A Tool in Biotechnology Basics and Application. Springer, Germany.pp 333.
    6. Kumar Ashwani and N.S. Shekhawat (2009) Plant tissue culture and molecular markers: Their role in improving crop productivity. I.K. International , New Delhi pp 688 .
    7. Kumar Ashwani and Sudhir Sopory (2010) Applications of plant biotechnology: In vitro propagation, plant transformation and secondary metabolite production. I.K. International . New Delhi. Pp 606.
    8. Kumar Ashwani (2010) Plant genetic transformation and molecular markers. Pointer Publishers, Jaipur. Pp. 288.
    • 10 .Helena Fernandez, Kumar Ashwani,(2010) Revilla Bahillo Maria Angeles Working with Ferns: Issues and Applications Springer pp 350

    11. Kumar, Ashwani and Roy, S ( 2011) Plant tissue culture and applied plant biotechnology. Avishkar Publishers, Jaipur.
    12. Sharma Meghendra and Kumar Ashwani (2011) Ethnobotanical and pharmacognostical studies of some medicinal plants:Tribal medicines for health care and improving quality of life. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, Germany. Pp 234.

    13. Sharma Himanshu and Kumar Ashwani (2011) Pharmacognostical studies on some selected medicinal plants: Plants for human welfare. . LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, Germany. Pp 229.
    14. Roy Ajanta and Kumar Ashwani (2011) Ethnobotanical studies on medicinal plants of Himalayas: Traditional medicine system of Himalayan region. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, Germany. Pp 211.
    15. Sharma, Santosh and Kumar, Ashwani (2011) Studies on growth and physiology of some medicinal plants:Improving growth and productivity of medicinal plants LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, GermanyISBN 975-3-8465-0985. .(in press)
    16. Mamta Choudhary and Kumar Ashwani (2011) Studies on growth and physiology of medicinal plants: Plantago spp.:Plantago ovata Forsk. (Isabgol) cultivation and improvement. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, GermanyISBN 975-3-8465-0985. .(in press)
    17. Vijayvargiya,Sapna and Kumar Ashwani (2011) Inluence of Salinity Stress on Plant Growth and Productivity:Salinity stress influences on plant growth LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishers, Saarbruecken, GermanyISBN 975-3-8465-5506. .(in press)


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