Mali: Campaign for biodiesel intensifies but farmers remain cautious (by Idy Sy Diop, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Dakar, Senegal)

| December 1, 2008

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The following story was originally published in FRW Issue #7, in January of this year. As farmers in many parts of the African continent are being pressured to grow crops for biofuels, we believe this story is worth a second look.

Faced with an intense government and industry campaign to grow plants for biodiesel production, Malian farmers have shown some interest but remain cautious.

Zoumana Dembelé is a farmer in Koutiala, in Mali’s Sikasso region. He has allocated 20 per cent of his land to Jatropha curcas, a plant used to produce biodiesel. But he will continue to grow cotton and cereals – cotton to make money and cereals for the survival of his family.

Mr. Dembelé explained that he will begin growing less cotton, since the market for cotton is no longer strong. But he will also remain cautious as he begins growing Jatropha curcas, commonly called jatropha.

The Malian government is encouraging farmers to grow jatropha for biodiesel because the country does not produce oil. Ahmed Diane Séméga is the Minister for Mines, Energy, and Water. Last September, he announced the government’s intention to replace a significant amount of Mali’s diesel use with biodiesel in the next decade or two.

At current prices, biodiesel made from jatropha is sold for a third of the price of regular diesel.

In some areas of southern Mali, jatropha has been grown for more almost a decade. It has been used to shield farms against wind and predators. Now, it is being planted as a cash crop.

But farmers have good reason to think twice before replacing their crops with jatropha. Cissé Seydou is a campaigner for a private company in the Sikasso region. He knows that farmers have been encouraged to start new products in the past, only to have it end in failure.

Farmers may also be discouraged by jatropha’s long growing cycle. It takes three years of cultivation from planting to harvest.
While farmers in some areas are being pressured to grow jatropha to meet the country’s energy needs, farmers in places like Keleya, also in southern Mali, have quietly begun using biodiesel to run their tractors and grinding machines.

Far from the hype of the government and industry campaign – biodiesel production remains on a small scale, serving local farmers and small rural industries.

Biodiesel is also catching on in the capital of Bamako and other Malian cities. Faced with the ever-increasing cost of oil, some mechanics are adapting car engines for biodiesel, and some families and small business are using biodiesel power generators.