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Jatropha Not A Miracle Crop

Jatropha, often hailed as a rich source of biodiesel that flourishes in semiarid areas of Africa, is hard to grow and often fails if farmers lack expertise, an executive of a company developing the crop said.

Vincent Volckaert, the Africa regional director for biofuels technology firm D1 Oils, dismissed the idea jatropha can produce a good harvest in any climatic conditions, as is believed by many who invest in large-scale production of the crop in Africa.

“If you grow jatropha in marginal conditions, you can expect marginal yields. Jatropha is not a miracle crop; it needs to be cultivated and farmed well to produce a good harvest,” he told a conference April 1.

Jatropha is a non-food crop and its oil-rich seeds can be used to produce biodiesel. Supporters argue it can be grown on semi-arid land and so poses less of a threat to food output than other biofuel feedstocks such as grains and vegetable oils.

Volckaert said that in many cases seeds are given out to farmers without any instruction, plantings are done badly or at the wrong time of the year and then not managed properly.

He cited a survey of 615 jatropha projects where 90 per cent of the plantations were in a bad condition.

“No fertilizer will help if the planting was done badly at the beginning,” he said.

Volckaert said that while South Africa is not suited to grow the crop, there were other promising examples on the continent.

Zimbabwe’s National Oil Company said the country planned to use jatropha to produce up to 10 per cent of its fuel needs, or 100 million litres of biodiesel per year, by 2017.

Volckaert said that even with new technologies, it still takes up to 25 years to mature a jatropha crop, but yields can be doubled over 10 years.

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