Malawi explores biodiesel as a cash crop

By Charles Mkoka

LILONGWE, Malawi, July 15, 2005 (ENS): The Biodiesel Agriculture Association in the central African country of Malawi has embarked on a nationwide campaign, urging farmers to plant a crop that will produce biodiesel. The plants of choice are drought tolerant, environmentally friendly, do not need production inputs, and are harvested three times annually.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Although potentially lethal, the seeds of the Jatropha plant, pictured above, contain a high percentage of oil making them an ideal candidate for biodiesel production.
The biodiesel association in Malawi has been contracted to implement a Jatropha curcas planting program by D1 Oils Africa (Pty) Limited, headquartered in the United Kingdom.

Jatropha curcas is a drought resistant shrub that grows up to 15 feet tall with spreading branches. Bark, fruit, leaf and root contain hydrogen cyanide; the plant also contains the toxics toxalbumin and curcin. The black thin-shelled seeds of one variety can be fatal if even four or five seeds are eaten.

But Jatropha seeds also contain a high percentage of oil, used for candles, soap and biodiesel production.

“We are currently on a nationwide campaign sensitizing rural communities through district commissioners, senior chiefs, and right now we have already conducted meeting with over 600 chiefs," said the Biodiesel Agriculture Association Director of Operations Osman Ibrahim in an exclusive interview with ENS in the commercial industrial hub of Kanengo in Lilongwe.

Ibrahim said, "The program has secured substantial land rights through contract farming amounting to 13,000 hectares to plant Jatropha.”

Ibrahim is a former Emergency Operations Coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Mozambique where he initiated the food for work program. He intends to lobby WFP to establish a food for work program in Malawi.

The Association is currently urging local and international nongovernmental organizations, institutions dealing with communities, clubs, cooperatives involved in development work, micro-finance institutions and agro-business partners to introduce the Jatropha planting program to their members and beneficiaries.

“The farmers are being provided with seeds and seedlings including incentives to plant Jatropha," says Ibrahim. "For every tree planted, the association rewards the planter with one Malawi kwacha, just as is the case after the seeds given to them free have germinated.” The kwacha is Malawi's the basic unit of money.

“We are urging farmers to plant 2,500 trees per hectare," says Ibrahim. "This is part of community empowerment at its best. The association does not buy land from the people, neither does it lease it. Both the trees and the land belong to the people. There are no strings attached to this initiative."

Ibrahim advises communities not to destroy existing trees or forests but to identify idle land and plant Jatropha.

The Biodiesel Agriculture Association views Jatropha is an alternative cash crop. Each plant produces five to 15 kilograms of seeds per harvest three times a years, and when crushed and processed the seeds produce biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a clean burning alternative fuel produced from domestic renewable resources. It contains no petroleum, but it can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel for use in vehicles.

It is also used in compression ignition engines with no major modifications. It is simple to use, biodegradable, nontoxic and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics.

The overall smog forming potential of biodiesel is 67 percent less than diesel fuel, the company states. Its analysis of biodiesel emissions show decreased level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and nitrate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which have been identified as potential cancer causing compounds.

The global market demand for biodiesel is strong as concerns rise that petroleum production may peak soon. Ibrahim says there is an estimated demand for diesel of at least 10.5 billion liters by 2010 in the European Union alone. Current current global production by 2010 is estimated at only three billion liters.

The demand for alternative fuel sources continues to grow throughout Africa, the company says, and it intends to meet this demand in Africa through regional development and the production of biodiesel as an alternative fuel source.

D1 Oil Plc has adopted a policy of social and ethical responsibility, and says it is committed to reducing global reliance on nonrenewable sources of energy which contribute to global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases.

The company says it is conducting its Jatropha agro-forestry in a sustainable manner to ensure that the benefit of producing vegetable oil for refining into biodiesel does not come at the cost of destruction to the environment, the misuse of water and other natural resources, or loss of biodiversity.

In addition to biodiesel, Jatropha seeds also yield glycerin, which is used as a body lotion. The final product is a cake that can be used as fertilizer.

A member of the spurge family, the plant is also called the physic nut, Barbados nut, purging nut, pignon d'inde, and kuikui pake.

Used in traditional medicine against a long list of ailments including burns, cough, stomachache, gonorrhea and syphilis, inflammation, jaundice, paralysis, pneumonia, rash, tumors, and ulcers, the Jatropha has latex that contains an alkaloid, jatrophine, which shows anti-cancerous properties. The extracts have been used in folk remedies for cancer.

D1 has established a foundation "to engage isolated rural communities in developing countries in the commercial production of biodiesel feed stocks."

The foundation aims to strengthen local agricultural employment, encourage rural self–sufficiency and establish appropriate energy infrastructure. "Our intention is that such project will in due course become self supporting and functioning,” the company says.

Ibrahim says that next week the association will start crushing the seeds it has collected from farmers, and samples of the oils will be sent to South Africa for testing.

"We expect to get official communication from experts after the oils have been tested. Already some analysts have told us the quality of our seed is good in the region," added Ibrahim.

An economic commentator, who asked not to be named, said that embarking on new discoveries on a large scale like Jatropha planting would prevent the country from draining its foreign reserves. That consideration is especially important at this time when Malawi is experiencing acute foreign currency shortages that make it difficult to import raw materials and goods.

A land-locked country, Malawi has recently experienced rising prices of crude oil on the world market, resulting in soaring prices at the pump. The prices hikes cover freight charges at sea, demurrage charges at landing ports, and transportation costs including road levies. If done on a large scale, the initiative will save motorists from dipping deeper into their pockets.

Environmentalists have also hailed the move saying that the main product of Jatropha biodiesel is environmentally friendly, since it produces fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

“The whole world is embarking on renewable sustainable energy resources," says environmentalist Dixie Makwale. "This is really a timely initiative."

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Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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