A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Point of view

Jatropha, an ecological plant and a sustainable biofuel?

by Pierre Henri Texier,
General Engineer for Highway, Water and Forestry Resources
Vice Secretary of the Académie d'Agriculture de France, Vice President of the Club des Bioéconomistes1

The African continent is experiencing continued population growth. One of its key challenges will be to meet an increasing food demand, thus leading to a rising demand for energy resources. In fact, Africa is expected to represent close to eight percent of the increase in global energy demand by 2035. The African continent will then resolve one of the key issues of the 21st century: How can we produce more and produce better?

In such context, using renewable energy resources is seriously planned, especially to expand sustenance farming. Three engineers have focused on one of such alternative paths––the use of jatropha, a plant used in the production of second-generation biofuel. In an article we are excerpting below2, these experts start from the practical case of the plant use in Burkina Faso to study its promises and its limitations.While the plant’s actual use has encountered several snags, it nevertheless seems that jatropha could be a tool toward energy and economic independence, without conflicting with food security and agro-ecology objectives.

Because agriculture is a strategic sector, it must be groundbreaking to ensure the food security of the nine billion people who will soon inhabit the world. Investing in agriculture thus insures not only innovativeness but also political responsibility.

momagri Editorial Board


The energy demand in the African continent is expected to sharply rise in the coming decades. The World Energy Outlook’s latest forecast published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2013 stresses the rising needs in Africa’s primary energy between now and 2035, with an yearly growth rate of 1.6 percent, similar to China’s for instance. The same sources also indicate that Africa is expected to represent close to eight percent of global energy demand by 2035, against five percent for Brazil, one of the drivers of the non-OECD region.

In spite of their predictive nature, these numbers clearly imply that Africa must marshal significant efforts to meet this growth challenge. In this respect, renewable energy resources must play a fundamental role, since they should allow to simultaneously meet three objectives: (i) reducing energy demand, thus improving the trade balance; (ii) potentially cutting down polluting emissions; and (iii) diversifying agricultural production. The so-called second-generation biofuels, i.e. not produced by sustenance farming, are a share of such resources, and could contribute to solving the equation, if a set of framework conditions are implemented and are used first toward sustainable rural electrification.

In this article, the case of Jatropha in Burkina-Faso is presented as an emblematic example revealing the problems––and the promises!––regarding the second-generation bioenergy in developing countries.


In the 2000s, the enthusiasm for jatropha-growing––the plant used for biofuel production either directly in the form of vegetable oil, or in the form of biodiesel following treatment––was measured by the thousands of acres from Western Africa to Madagascar that were intended for the production of this green fuel. An overwhelming interest for this “miracle” plant attracted investors, since jatropha was presented as growing in all types of soil (even waterless soil), without fertilizers and needing little water, with yields reaching three to five tons per hectare (2.47 acres). In a background of structural poverty and geographic isolation, Burkina Faso is highly dependent on hydrocarbon imports, which greatly impact the country’s economic balance. As a result, biofuels seemed to be an opportunity in terms of energy independence. About 15 diverse operators jumped into such a venture in Burkina Faso, and the diversity of parties involved––NGOs, capitalistic enterprises, associations and local authorities––signals the wide appeal for the development of a plant that is cost-effective, environmentally friendly, energy providing and socially beneficial, an appeal that was not necessarily self-contradictory.

Objectives to expand jatropha crops

The significant expansion of biofuel farming entailed the following arguments:

    • Independence from the country’s energy supply, regarding hydrocarbons and a reduction in national energy costs;

    • Lasting contribution to the national economy through the development of endogenous energy resources;

    • Support, stimulation and improvement of the quality of life in rural areas, while respecting food security and environmental preservation;

    • Job creation and poverty reduction in rural areas, through the development of jatropha vegetable oil production methods.

The Current Crisis

Following the three to five years required for the plant maturity after plantation, the painful reality became obvious: Not a single operator could achieve the needed yields to recover the investments made. As early as 2008, the wave of massive infatuation with jatropha turned to profound disaffection. Today, several entities have shut down, or are depending on obtaining new financing without any hope of short-term profitability. In fact, jatropha suffers from several major problems that were not taken into consideration during its fast-paced boom and include:
    • Low yields in dry land, far from the three to five tons/hectare promised returns, with current numbers closer to about 100 kilograms/hectare, and substantially higher output in irrigated areas;

    • A slow return on investment since the first possible crop takes several years,

    • A stiff competition with traditional subsidized hydrocarbons.

Public policies

During the Ouagadougou Seminar held in October 2014, the attendance proposed new directions regarding the actions to be conducted. The following development priorities were defined:
    The application of techniques generated by new methods implemented by agro-ecology specialists. They involve encouraging crops in association with peanut or other crops (cowpea or corn for instance), in 8- to 12-meter strips, and/or in hedgerows bordering lots. These methods lessen investment costs while maintaining soil productiveness, and lessen the risk of erosion.

    Improving cakes accounting for 70 percent of yields. The tests conducted on their use as fertilizer showed that three bags of jatropha cakes equaled one bag of chemical fertilizer, like cotton. In addition, these cakes provide the organic matter required to maintain soil fertility.

    The need to submit a seed purchase price that is attracting farmers, considering seed prices for other competition crops, in order to increase crop volumes on sown surfaces.

    In addition, improving hulling procedures that allow both cutting down labor and maximizing the use of casings as fertilizer, was also emphasized.

    Lastly, it was recommended to add more value to the jatropha pure vegetable oil for soap production or for rural power, in order to dominate the competition with traditional fuel markets. At the local level, the decentralized rural electrification market has been identified, especially through multi-functional platforms.
Today, there is a new and genuine awareness on the importance of power in villages in the framework of rural development, and the improvement of the quality of life for farmers and the rural population. At the global level, close to 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity and thus rely on candles or oil lamps, to modern telecommunications or to basic household appliances, such as refrigerators. In Burkina Faso, two thirds of the rural population have no access to electricity, and spend 23 liters of oil per person and per year to get light, at a cost of 8,000 CFA Francs per year and per person, the equivalent of $12. Yet, the lighting energy efficiency with lamp oil is 0.05 percent, while the jatropha lighting energy efficiency for both a power generator and LED lighting would be 5 percent, or 100 times more!

This use of jatropha oil would therefore cut down energy costs by more than 50 percent for the rural population, while ameliorating seeds at 140 CFA Francs/kilogram for farmers. Of course, such move requires a strong commitment from political authorities at the level of the ministries of agriculture, of the energy and of finances, authorities who have become perfectly aware of the merging interest of farmers, energy specialists and public finance administrators.

Future prospects for the agribusiness sector

Without altering current conditions, there is every reason to believe that the biofuel sector might die in a few years in Africa, since it is now running out of gas due to the lack of political support and financial backing. This scenario would destroy the investment efforts––in time, money and labor––made during the past few years, and would definitely compromise the eventual future reviving of the industry. Actually, it will be difficult to convince producers, who were burnt by a negative first experience, to take part in a new plan, even if conditions were to be improved.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to develop the agribusiness sector to engage successfully in a strategy meeting national energy challenges fully justifies an additional aid effort, as proven recently.

This expressly implies a coherent research program conducted over the duration, through the will to act generated by cooperation between Western African nations, in order to improve yields with agronomic research or variety selections, at a time when agronomic research is barely focusing on jatropha, contrary to cotton and wheat for instance whose yields increased by 600 to 800 percent in a few decades.

Due to the volatility of oil prices connected to the unforeseeable fluctuations of the international economy, a surge in oil prices in the coming years cannot be eliminated, thus making jatropha a tool for energy and economic independence, at the forefront of the economic arena.

Lastly, a positive momentum for the jatropha value chain must be envisioned over a longer term thanks to the “snow balling” effect of the jatropha initial development on employment in rural areas and energy independence, therefore paving the way for a dynamic and self-sustained production.
( …)

1 As well as Mélanie Guittet, Project Engineer at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Massimiliano Capezzali, Deputy Director of the Energy Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
2 With its kind permission, we will regularly print various articles from the Académie d’Agriculture de France, whose mission is to conduct scientific, technical, economic, legal, social or cultural research over the medium and long term in the fields of agriculture, food and the environment.

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Paris, 10 December 2018