The Jatropha Curcas plant is emerging as the driver of a biofuel revolution in Kenya that could help restore the country's degenerating environment at the same time. Since last year its cultivation has been spreading in arid areas such as Makueni, Eastern Province, delivering a new source of livelihood for poor communities.
The deciduous plant, which is drought tolerant, has a lifespan of 50 years and comes in forms that span from tree to crawling plant, is ideal for rehabilitating dry and barren land. Internationally, the Jatropha has been used to rehabilitate dry lands in both China and India.
In Kenya, the Jatropha has been indigenous to forests but is now introduced to farmlands, a little rain of 300ml is enough to get it established.
The Jatropha growing initiative in Kenya is being championed by Lorna Omuodo through her organisation – the Vanilla Jatropha Development Foundation (VJF). “Our first priority is to replenish the Jatropha, plant which has been exhausted by reckless human activity,”says Lorna. Once the Jatropha is replenished, vanilla will be introduced into the habitat. “We also encourage farmers to plant sugarcane with their crops to maintain soil fertility.”
In Makueni, 500 families who had no means of livelihood are now earning incomes from Jatropha harvests. “Consider this, the cost of quality maize seeds is Sh600, after only one harvest you sell a 70kg bag of maize at Sh1200, but a Jatropha farmer gets six harvests in an year and sells each kilogram of Jatropha at Sh12,” says Lorna Also, in Kilifi, a Japanese organization is overseeing a 7500 acres Jatropha farming project.
The biofuel revolution won’t be rapid in Kenya, said Lorna, due to the expense and technology involved. UN statistics show 90 percent of global biofuel came from the US, Europe and Brazil in 2007. “But farmers can sell their seed harvest and uplift their living standards,” said Lorna.
Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) is one organisation that buys harvests of Jatropha.
However, the VJF project is not focused on the bio-fuel revolution alone. “We are also highlighting environmental destruction and its consequences” says Lorna. She cited two rivers in Machakos – Subukia and Athi - that have completely dried up. “While politicians are shouting Mau they are forgetting Gwatta-Makueni, where no food has grown for 40 years, but where we have overseen Jatropha introduction with success,” said Lorna.
There are challenges however. Getting the plant established in a habitat takes a lot of hard work, and water. In addition, biofuel itself is now attracting opposition from those who argue it will threaten food security in Sub Saharan Africa. “That’s why we are for Jatropha as the source of bio fuels, not maize or cassava,” said Lorna.
The government has also been criticised for not supporting biofuel technology. Lorna cited the Energy Act of 2006 that promoted the use of Kerosene and LPG gas. “It took 26 years to implement it, yet it’s even not eco-friendly,” she said.
As it is, biomass fuels, such as wood, are used by 80 per cent of Kenyan households and have caused the destruction of forests, which formerly acted as water catchment areas, and for indoor pollution. “Its even worse in slums, where dwellers that can't get firewood to cook, use plastics to cook with,” said Lorna
VJF is also reaching out to Kenya’s private enterprise by showcasing how businesses can benefit by investing in green ventures through a Green Profits Program. “We are looking at alternative ideas to business creation by conserving the environment,” said Lorna.
“Energy security and environmental sustainability calls for concerted efforts from all levels. Bioethanol is now being used in Ethiopia. Why not us?” she said.
Written by James Karuga for African Laughter
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