Jatropha: Nigeria’s response to desertification, clean rural fuel

Recently, the Minister of Environment, Mrs. Aisha Mohammed disclosed that the federal government has taken a new decision to strengthen the push for renewable energy distribution and tackling of deforestation in the north by incorporating the cultivation of Jatropha into its plans.

According to Mohamed, Jatropha, the oil rich tree that was once the world’s answer to a lot of medical problems, will now be accorded a priority place in the nation’s plan for renewable energy placement.

Especially in the northern parts of the country where desertification is increasingly threatening livelihoods and communities’ existence, Jatropha may have given Nigeria a reliable and clean solution to work with.  

What is this plant with a funny name about? If it is so miraculous why isn’t the world binging on it right now?

An article on science direct, described Jatropha as a multipurpose plant with many attributes and considerable potential. It said it is a tropical plant that can be grown in low to high rainfall areas and can be used to reclaim land, as a hedge and/or as a commercial crop. It also said from the seed of Jatropha, oil can be extracted to be used in place of kerosene and diesel, or even as a substitute for fuel-wood.

In addition to helping rural dwellers become self-sufficient in fuels for cooking, lighting and motive power, the report stated that a properly managed Jatropha cultivation could provide employment, improve the environment and enhance the quality of rural life.

From the early 2000s when an unprecedented global call for action against climate change gained a stand, with many countries actively pursuing cleaner and more environmentally conservative goals through forest preservations, cleaner energy resources and environmentally friendlier technology in cars and other fuel consuming engines, there has been some sort of a pivot to reliable solutions which Jatropha offers.

As expected, Jatropha became a priority in the biofuel race which the push for cleaner energy brought along.

As a rugged perennial, nearly drought resistant small tree with oil rich seeds that can burn without refining, Jatropha is also very rich insecticides, and has proven to be economically useful.

Native to the Americas, it has been shown to thrive in Africa, making it appear near perfect on paper as a cash crop.

The oil found in its seeds can be refined into high grade biodiesel usable in any conventional diesel engine and with its hardy resilience it can survive in arid and poorly fertilized soils.

In 2008, when there was a global rush for Jatropha, Africa was however on ground zero for its cultivation.

But with inventive schemes employing subsistent farmers and promising to pay out $70 -$100 per tonne, massive Jatropha farms sprang up in Botswana, Benin, Senegal, Tanzania, Mozambique and many other African countries, hoping to tap into the scuttle but the first harvest was not too encouraging as barely two tonnes per hectare was made.

It was through this painful experience that the reality about Jatropha was discovered, which is that though it could survive in harsh environments and sparse soil, its yield was just as dependent on water as other plants.

This, according to reports was a devastating news for many investors who quickly began to pull out leaving subsistent farmers to suffer the brunt of low yield crops that could not make the cut for the international market.

Many were not keen to invest if they could not make maximum profit and it hurt them to note that Jatropha would need just as much work and research as other crops, giving the plant a slim margin for returns in the short term.

This waned enthusiasm for the plant slowed whatever progress that could have been achieved in the interim, however, future announcements by research houses like JOil in Singapore and joint research by SG Biofuels and Agrasun in America, that progress has been recorded in the form of higher yields, shorter gestation period, higher seed and oil content amongst others, restored the plants economic offerings.

Nigeria’s recent decision to go with Jatropha, though innovative and creative, with the potential to aggressively tackle the growing desertification rate in the North, and improve the living conditions of rural populations, must however be taken cautiously.

OGN from research conducted by experts, understands that while there could be strong economic benefits from the government’s plan for Jatropha cultivation, a strong thought from a business perspective should be given to this by the government.

Unlike some of its past plans, Nigeria must enter into this project with a concrete and all-encompassing business plan, reflecting the latest research and information on the crop to enjoy its benefits for desertification and energy access.