Science - June 9, 2010

Jatropha not booming business in Mozambique

Two years ago western investors were queuing up to start up plantations of the biofuel crop jatropha in Mozambique. But all the plans fell through due to the credit crunch and plant diseases.

Jatropha plant blighted by a pest
Maya Slingerland of the Plant Production Systems chair group explains that many western companies that wanted to found plantations with risk capital have already gone bust.
'They put ten percent of the investment on the table at the start, and the other 90 percent was to come from institutional investors', says Slingerland. 'Then came the economic crisis and that money wasn't there any more.'
Another problem is that jatropha is plagued by fungi and insects that strip the plant bare. 'It takes ten years to get an understanding of the agronomics of a plant and to select genetically superior varieties.' The area of Mozambique planted with jatropha is growing by no more than 200 hectares per year. It takes three years before the plant makes the oily seeds and there are no factories yet for processing the oil into biodiesel.

The government of Mozambique wants to produce biofuels instead of importing fossil fuels. It wants to invest in biofuels as a way of improving the rural infrastructure and guaranteeing the local energy supply. 'There is plenty of space for fuel crops', says Slingerland. 'But up to now they are grown in the coastal areas near existing infrastructure created for exports.'
Energy crops are largely grown on foreign-owned plantations which often have to negotiate with neighbouring farmers to get their hands on large tracts of land. The local farmers are usually given a plot of land elsewhere so that local food production doesn't suffer. It is not attractive for the farmers to grow jatropha themselves. Slingerland: 'It is a new crop and knowledge about its production is rudimentary. So the farmer doesn't take any risks.'

Sweet sorghum
The same goes for the production of sweet sorghum. A Swedish company wants to use the sweet sorghum grain for food and the sugary canes for ethanol production. That sounds good to the government. 'But sweet sorghum doesn't taste nice', says Slingerland. 'The farmers know that and they are not going to grow it as a food crop. It falls to us to explain that to the government.'
The Mozambique government does not want food crops such as sunflower and cassava used to produce biofuels, whereas this is precisely where Slingerland sees opportunities. 'Sunflower can easily be processed on the farm in a small oil press, and it can be used as a cooking oil too. As for cassava, local production has dropped from twelve tons per hectare to six, because the demand for cassava for export has gone down. Farmers can intensify production again if the market picks up because cassava can be processed into ethanol or biogas.' For the present, Slingerland sees few 'competing claims' between food and biofuel in Mozambique.
Mixing fuels
The research on what the bio-energy hype means for farmers in Mozambique takes place within the framework of a partnership programme between Wageningen UR and DGIS. A dozen MSc students have carried out case studies within this programme. Moreover, March Schut, a PhD student with Communication Sciences, advises the Mozambique government on sustainable biofuel production.
If the government does not take any additional measures, an internal market for biofuel in Mozambique will not develop, says Slingerland. 'The government could for example impose compulsory mixing of a proportion of biofuel to stimulate home production.'