How a Biofuel 'Miracle'
Ruined Kenyan Farmers
in Kibwezi, a village in southeastern Kenya parched by four
years of drought, remembers the promises. It all started in
2000, when the government started preaching the
word about a
plant called jatropha curcas.
That surprised people in Kibwezi because
everyone already knew about Jatropha — it's a weed.
Sometimes people planted it to fence off their farms, but
usually they just ignored it.
market vendors selling maize in Kagemi .
The government told the farmers, however, that jatropha
seeds can be pressed to make biofuel and that scientists
believed the plant's seeds contained more oil than other
biofuel crops. Even better, the government said, jatropha
needed little tending. All you had to do was stick it in the
ground and watch it grow. Best of all for Kibwezi, a place
that's frequently stricken by drought, scientists believed
that the plant thrived on arid land. Convinced they could
reap large profits from the plant in the global craze for
alternative energy sources, hundreds of farmers turned over
acres of their small farms to jatropha. But it didn't take
them long to realize what scientists have come to realize in
recent months: what was once touted as a miracle plant that
needed almost no water has turned out to be anything but
Peter Munyao, a
village elder, is one of the farmers who
experimented with the new crop. He planted jatropha
in 2006 and encouraged other farmers to follow his
lead. But today, the plants on his farm have all
dried up and lost their seeds and leaves. "The
people who did the promotion for jatropha had not
done [their] research ... because we have realized
that the crop is getting moisture stress just like
any other crop," he says. A study published in June
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, a Washington-based scientific journal,
found that jatropha actually requires more water per
liter of biofuel produced than most other biofuel
plants. That's bad news in Kenya, a country in the
middle of a full-blown food crisis due to the
lengthy drought. The World Food Program said in
August that 3.8 million Kenyans had been affected by
the drought and that malnutrition was on the rise.
Kenya isn't the only country that's gotten caught up
in the excitement over jatropha. Last December, an
Air New Zealand jet powered by a jatropha/kerosene
blend made a successful test flight. China, Brazil
and even Myanmar have promoted it heavily, sometimes
forcing farmers to plant it. In India, jatropha has
been planted on hundreds of thousands of acres of
land. But, like the farmers in Kibwezi, farmers in
these other countries have also experienced problems
growing the plant. In India, for example, a test
project at several agricultural colleges produced
seed yields of only 200 grams per plant — a fifth
the expected output of one kilogram of seeds per
(Read: "Biofuel Gone Bad: Burma's Atrophying
David Newman, who runs the Nairobi-based biofuels
consultancy Endelevu Energy, says there have been
isolated examples of success growing jatropha.
"Occasionally a tree has survived in a marginal area
and produces quite a bit of seed with no
[agricultural] inputs whatsoever. But there's a
difference between that one tree and replicating it
thousands of times in the field," he says. The
problem with jatropha, scientists say, is that there
is no proven, widely disseminated method for growing
In the absence of reliable information, the farmers
in Kenya were fed mistruths about the plant and its
biofuel potential by nongovernmental organizations
and the government, which got much of their
information from the Internet. The farmers said they
were persuaded to buy so-called "certified" jatropha
seeds, which were said to grow in tough conditions.
They were also told they would be given advice on
how to plant their fields and that once the plants
began to produce seeds, agricultural officials would
buy them at prices upwards of 1,000 shillings ($13)
per kilogram. Farmers were also told that demand
would increase steadily for the oil produced by the
The problem is, none of those promises came to be.
"It was a combination of international hype and
local organizations who were ... selling seeds at
very high prices claiming that they were special
certified seeds when really they were just seeds
collected from old trees in the wild," Newman says.
The plants also did not do well in arid conditions.
"[The plant] was more fragile, especially in its
initial establishment phase, than we thought," says
Jan Van den Abeele, executive director for Better
Globe Forestry, a Nairobi-based group that studies
optimal conditions for planting trees in dry areas.
And many farmers had no buyers for their seeds. Some
began giving them away to neighbors.
Farmers in Kibwezi quickly realized that they would
have to throw out the rulebook to make their crops
grow. Boniface Muoki's jatropha plants look like
they're doing well — they're covered with thick
green leaves and fruit. But Muoki says he did almost
nothing the government experts told him to Do —
instead, he planted the seedlings in meter-deep
holes so that they would collect more rainwater and
he tends the plants fastidiously. "It's the farmer
who knows best," Muoki says. "At this point, I know
more about jatropha than most anyone because it's me
who experienced jatropha every day, who has seen how
the plant behaves in varied conditions."
(Read: "Can Airplanes Fly on Biofuel?")
The problems haven't discouraged other jatropha
proponents, either. For several years, Titus Kisavi
traveled the region encouraging farmers to grow the
plant, earning a commission from development groups
for the seeds he sold. These days, however, he
doesn't have a job and he spends his afternoons at a
bar near Kibwezi. Still, he hasn't given up on the
plant. "I have a very big passion for jatropha,"
Kisavi said. "I visit farmers and tell them to plant
it in the hope that one day ... somebody will come
to the farms and sign contracts for the seed. We
know one day that jatropha will be in very high