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The energy and agriculture challenge

Energy access is essential for agricultural growth throughout ACP countries – but the change from fossil fuels to renewables is not without its challenges.

Sorting jatropha seeds before processing into pure jatropha oil which is being used in Burkina Faso as biofuel in place of diesel © GERES/Africa Express
Sorting jatropha seeds before processing into pure jatropha oil which is being used in Burkina Faso as biofuel in place of diesel © GERES/Africa Express

Friday, 23 December 2016

Flaunted as ‘green gold’, while also sometimes strongly criticised, Jatropha curcas now contributes to small-scale rural electrification in Benin.

“We’ve harvested 800 kg of jatropha seeds today,” Michel Adomahou said to his father, who was obviously very pleased with the results of the work done by his two sons and their wives to maintain their jatropha plantation. A visible reward for the effort are two lamps that they procured a few months earlier to light up their entire homestead. The manager of the jatropha depot in the villages of Tori-Agonsa (about 50 km east of Cotonou) also installed a power outlet on his property to provide electricity for his family’s television and for recharging their mobile phone batteries. Adomahou’s father, Jean, was the first grower contacted by an advisor of CIRAPIP, a Beninese NGO that promotes farmers’ initiatives in the Tori township, through information, research and action. The first meeting of the Tori-Agonsa jatropha growers’ group was held on his farm in 2013. He and his sons were quickly won over by the advisor’s explanations. Jean Adomahou, who became head of the group, strives to be an exemplary farmers’ group leader. His jatropha plantation covers 25 ha from which the family generates most of its income. After the onset of the rainy season, 2-3 t of harvested jatropha seeds are delivered from his farm to the village depot.

Jatropha depots are managed within the framework of a CIRAPIP coordinated project, with technical support from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The pilot phase of this project kicked off in 2013 in three townships in southern Benin: Djidja, Ouinh and Tori. Ten jatropha depots were set up in 10 different villages per municipality. Each jatropha depot is divided into three different units, including a seed storage unit, a mill and an oil production unit. During the pilot phase that recently ended, harvested and dried jatropha seeds were purchased from growers. The seeds are processed into pure jatropha vegetable oil, which in turn is used instead of diesel as fuel for Lister engines (used for grinding cereals) that power the seed mill. In the evening a generator is attached to the motor to produce electricity to light up the homesteads, with growers paying a fixed fee per installed lamp.

A healthy and readily available fuel

Presently, jatropha oil is mainly used as fuel for seed milling and concession lighting. “The jatropha oil-fuelled engine starts very slowly, but I breathe better and can work the whole day without stopping,” says Jacob Sinha, a Tori-Agonsa miller. “When it runs on diesel, the atmosphere is charged with fumes and I have to shut it down after 2-3 h and then start it up again later to resume my work.” Other millers in Tori-Agonsa also no longer see the point of going into town to stock up on diesel. The ready availability of this oil, which hardly gives off any carbon dioxide during combustion, is a great relief for everyone. Even wealthier families have now purchased Lister engines to generate electricity. A new 5-year phase has just started to consolidate the progress achieved in the pilot phase, which mainly enabled growers to effectively manage their jatropha plantations.

Is jatropha compatible with food crops?

Jatropha is a perennial plant that grows in all types of soil in the tropics. As it requires lots of water to grow, especially during flowering, is there a risk of competition for land with food crops? Research has confirmed that when the agrofuel is produced in good conditions, i.e. avoiding intensive monocropping, there is no threat to food security, there is no competition. According to Dr Benjamin Datinon, IITA researcher in charge of the jatropha project, “Jatropha can be beneficially grown in association with food crops such as maize, groundnut, cowpea, etc.” IITA gives growers a choice of two cropping systems – sole cropping or intercropping. For the latter system, growers intercrop jatropha and food crops. It is recommended that jatropha be sown at the onset of the main rainy season, i.e. March in southern Benin and June in the north. The plants flower 120 days after sowing. Seeds can then be harvested from young jatropha plants a few weeks after flowering. In the dry season, jatropha plants lose all their leaves which can be mulched to nourish the soil until the next rains – jatropha thus also serves as a fertiliser in intercropping systems. 

Prior to CIRAPIP, the French NGO, GERES, also promoted jatropha cropping in the Beninese departments of Zou (in the south) and Collines (in the central region) in the late 2000s. The impacts of these projects are still visible, i.e. more than 1,000 growers are still involved with GERES and each grower has planted jatropha on a tenth of their farmland. Large jatropha plantations (428 ha) and groups that are very active throughout the value chain are involved in this project, which is currently under assessment. 

In other countries, like Mali where jatropha is more widely grown, jatropha oil has already met a pure vegetable oil quality standard and is thus authorised for use in stationary and mobile diesel engines. Control methods for this standard have also been developed. In addition, the JatroREF network serves as a platform for information exchange between stakeholders to promote sustainable agrofuels in West Africa.  

Joachim Saizonou

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.