Saran Sangaré can attest to the power of jatropha. Locally-produced jatropha oil powers streetlights in her community in southern Mali. Students without electricity in their homes gather nightly under the lights to do their homework. The effect has been phenomenal. Since the lights came on, nearly all local students have passed their exams.Ms. Sangaré will also tell you that jatropha is not a miracle crop. Her community’s first jatropha plantation failed. It took good crop management to coax green seed pods from subsequent plantations. And knowledge from the women’s group to process the seeds into oil.
In recent years, jatropha has been touted as a miracle crop. It’s been said that this oilseed plant can thrive in semi-arid lands – in soil inhospitable to other crops. Based on this belief, some have argued that jatropha could be cultivated without displacing food crops. But those who grow the plant say it’s not so easy.
Vincent Volckaert is the Africa regional director for the biofuels company D1 Oils. His company has jatropha plantations in Madagascar, Swaziland, and Zambia. He dismisses the idea that you can get a good crop of jatropha almost anywhere. Mr. Volckaert says that if you grow jatropha in marginal conditions, you should expect marginal yields.
Mr. Volckaert cites many cases in which farmers were given jatropha seeds without information on how to cultivate the crop. If seeds are planted at the wrong time of year or not tended to properly, the crop will fail.
After one unsuccessful harvest, farmers in Ms. Sangaré’s community quickly learned how to tend the crop. Farmers now see the full benefit of jatropha. There’s more money in their pocketbooks. There’s also more energy for streetlights and other community needs.
In order to keep jatropha plants growing, Ms. Sangaré and her women’s group continue to cultivate understanding. Regular meetings keep villagers informed about the crop so they can continue to reap the benefits.