(ADPnews) - Dec 9, 2010 - Despite severe opposition from global environmental groups, jatropha curcas is about to become Africa's "green gold", bringing new opportunities for the continent as it provides a low-cost energy source for the rural community and gives a boost to the local economies.
by Tsvetomira Tsanova
Companies from around the world are flocking to Africa in a bid to develop millions of hectares of biofuel crops. Among these are names such as UK Jatropha Africa, UK D1 Oils, Swiss Addax Bioenergy, UK Sun Biofuels, German Acazis (ETR:ECOU), and Italy's Eni SpA (BIT:ENI).
For ages environmental organisations have been rushing to share their fear that growing biofuel crops in Africa could turn out to be a new way for the western world to take advantage of the continent's resources, with almost no benefit for the local communities. Sector player Jatropha Africa however, considers that eco-organisations "lose the facts and just make noise" when they generalise that all biofuel crops are a cause for land grabbing and a threat to food supplies.
In an interview for ADP News, Ohene Akoto, country director of Jatropha Africa in Ghana, gave jatropha curcas as an example of a plant that provides huge advantages for farmers as it prevents water and soil erosion, controls sand drift and can be used as green manure.
Jatropha curcas is a non-edible shrub that is native to Central America. Its seeds contain high amounts of oil that can be refined using existing technology to produce diesel fuel, jet fuel and specialty chemicals. The plant can be effectively grown on marginal lands that are considered undesirable for other crops.
In a study released this summer by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), jatropha was reviewed as a low-cost power source for poor farmers.
"As developing countries face increasing local demand for energy in rural areas, they also must deal with both economic and environmental pressure on agricultural lands in general," the study says. Growing jatropha is seen as a possible answer to the situation, as the use of jatropha oil reduces carbon dioxide emissions and scales down the use of fuel wood.
This November, another sector firm -- US GreenGold Ray Energies Inc (PINK:GRYE) -- announced that it had completed a test on jatropha oil, showing it could thoroughly substitute fossil fuels. GreenGold's research concluded that the jatropha oil is similar to fossil fuels both in composition and in viscosity, and confirmed that it can be used with diesel and jet engines with no or minimum modifications.
However, eco-organisations claim that the developing biofuel industry in Africa would fan the flames and intensify the famine that is a serious issue for almost the whole continent. In its report "Africa: Up for Grabs" issued at the end of August, Friends of the Earth argues that the growing demand for biofuel within the European Union (EU) is promoting land grabbing around Africa. The report quotes studies, which show that a third, or about 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres), of the African land that has recently been sold or acquired will be used for biofuel crops.
"Just as African countries have seen fossil fuels and other natural resources exploited for the benefit of richer countries, there is a risk that biofuels, and with them, Africa's agricultural land and natural resources, will be exported abroad with minimal benefit for local communities and national economies," the report said.
According to Ohene Akoto, the lack of government support to biofuel producers in Ghana leaves them no option but to sell their product abroad. Jatropha Africa is producing jatropha oil and other biofuel feedstock and is soon to enter into a take-off agreement, subject to the results of a due diligence, with a UK energy firm for all its oil production.
To the accusations of land grabbing, Akoto responded that mining activity in Ghana does significant damage to the used land without providing huge benefit for the local population, while jatropha is extremely suitable for growing in Africa, where there are huge tracks of fallow land.