The jatropha plant is not economically viable in Kenya. According to researchers, the biofuel crop, which was believed to be a solution to reducing the country's dependence on imported fossil fuels without threatening food security, has been found to be of little economic benefit to farmers as it had been previously hyped.
"Jatropha plantations are neither a solution to energy security in the country nor an attractive option to climate change mitigation," Simon Gmunder, a scientist from Switzerland said during the recent Bioenergy in Africa conference in Nairobi. The forum's theme was 'potentials and risks of jatropha and related crops'.
Gmunder said the potential for jatropha crop is limited in terms of local use as it has proved to be sensitive to land use changes. This is attributed to the fact that the plant cannot be intercropped with crops such as maize due to competition for soil nutrients.
Jatropha is not new in Kenya and many people perceived it as a weed while others used it to fence their farms until 2000 when the government started promoting the plant as a biofuel crop.
Better still, farmers were informed the plant grows naturally and requires no tending. All is needed is to plant the crop and wait for it to grow then harvest the seeds for pressing to produce biofuel.
This came at a time when the prices of fossil fuel skyrocketed and there was dire need for alternative sources of energy. Many farmers were convinced that they would reap maximum benefits and they turned to jatropha planting.
A FAO/IFAD report reveals that jatropha requires lots of water and in a water-stressed condition, could lead to conflict, adding that it is not suited to resource-poor communities in developing countries.
According to research from Egerton University, planting of the crop intensified in 2008 but later farmers started to uproot their jatropha plants for lack of returns as earlier promised.
The same year, an Italian biofuel investor leased 50,000 hectares at a cost of Sh12 million a year in Malindi for jatropha farming, a move that did not go down well with conservationists, who cited environmental concerns and that the soils were not tested to find out whether they were fit for jatropha farming.
Fred Amondo from Bondo is among many farmers in Kenya who experimented with the crop. He started with one acre in 2007 and since then he has only harvested one 90kg bag. However, he has not been able to sell his jatropha seeds for lack of market.
"I tried encouraging other farmers to follow suit but some are still afraid as the crop is culturally linked to magic. The plant is also infested with many diseases and farmers have shunned it," Amondo said.
Dr Rhoda Birech from Egerton University said out of ten acres, farmers only allocated half an acre to jatropha,evidence that they were not confident with the crop.
"While the market for biodiesel is there, farmers cannot produce enough but this is attributed to low returns and hence the reservation to plant the crop," Birech said.
"Jatropha farming was not research driven in Kenya; it was more of non-governmental organisations-oriented and that is why our farmers feel cheated," a Kenya Forestry Research Institute researcher said.
Other countries are experiencing the same problem. In Tanzania, a researcher showed that farmers are not getting value for their money.
"In one acre of land, a farmer can plant maize and get 20 bags at a cost of more than US$500 (Sh42,500) while if he/she planted 300 jatropha trees would earn $200 (Sh17,000).
The market in Tanzania is unstable and unpredictable and it is therefore risky for farmers," said Reginald Lyimo from Sokoine University in Tanzania.
In India, farmers have planted the crop in hundred of thousands of acres and like in Kenya, they are facing the same challenge.
According to FAO, the crop is regarded as an invasive plant in parts of Australia and in South Africa, it is banned for commercial production.
Asked on the future for bioenergy, one expert said, "If the jatropha plantations fail, we can end up losing on the economical, ecological and social benefits. We still have a long way to go and we have to take care not to look only at the jatropha plant but also explore other biodiesel options."