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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Jatropha Hunting.

There is a small seed which is getting a lot of attention in the biofuel world these days. Some think of it as a quick fix to impending international fuel shortages. Some see it as money spinner. Some as pure hype. But there are a group of people who are looking into Jatropha as a tool for poverty alleviation in rural areas- when managed and run well.

Much of last week was spent running around learning more. A friend of mine, Greg Murray, was visiting India on a Jatropha research trip, and so I got to tag along. The journey took us to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, where some of the leading world experts in Jatropha research are based. We then headed out to a field site to see a research plantation in action, and then up to Delhi, to meet with Sagun Saxena, the CEO of Clean Star Energy, a social enterprise which is looking into sustainable ways of creating employment and energy in rural India.

A fascinating week. A fascinating plant.
One of the most interesting things about Jatropha is that is can grow in virtually any soil and does not require much water. So that means arid soils and deserts can suddenly become productive. There is a huge amount of land across India (and the Middle East and North Africa) which is currently barren.

The communities in these areas are struggling. Income generation options are few. Urban migration is extraordinarily high. But it is in these conditions that Jatropha can be grown, and within a few years start producing decent yields. On average you can get 1 litre of oil per tree, per year. Not much. But when you roll out production on a mass scale, yields can start to become commerically viable.

Internationally, the demand for alternative fuel supplies is growing, but more research is needed, espically when it come to understanding the impact on local farmers. The Clean Star guys are doing just that. They have a pilot plantation in rural Maharashtra, are asking the right questions, spending time with the farmers, understanding their needs, looking at cost management, and investigating the corresponding social impact. It will take some time; time they are willing to invest.

Is Jatropha a panacea? Well maybe. With the Clean Star contingent on the ground, the research heads of the university engaged, and Greg Murray on the prowl (looking into replication in the Middle East and Africa), give it a couple of years (time for the plants to grow, and some longitudinal research to be done) we may find out.


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