Kenya's Biofuel Plan Hits Snags

Kenya has embraced a hardy bush called jatropha curcas as the heart of a nascent biofuel industry. Proponents predict a future in which jatropha oil will power commercial jets and cars. But in Kenya, where the government has encouraged farmers to plant jatropha, things aren't going so well.

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And there's a hardy bush that's been hailed as a great biofuel crop. Jatropha curcas is said to survive in harsh conditions and needs little care. Proponents predict a future in which jatropha oil will power commercial jets and cars. But in one place where the government has encouraged farmers to plant the bush, things aren't going so well.

Nick Wadhams visited a drought-stricken area in Kenya.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NICK WADHAMS: The rains have failed for three years around here. The earth is bleached dry and dust swirls at the slightest breeze. People are desperate for water and gather here at one of the few boreholes in Kibwezi.

(Soundbite of water)

WADHAMS: Kibwezi's chief Vincent Gutu(ph) watches as women pours water into yellow jugs strapped to bicycles.

So water's a big problem because of the drought, yeah?

Mr. VINCENT GUTU (Chief, Kibwezi): Yeah, no, due to the dryness of the area and the water has gone far deep in the soil. (Unintelligible) just a low flow of the water.

WADHAMS: But while the drought has put huge pressure on the region, that ought to make Kibwezi perfect territory for the jatropha. The green, leafy shrub is said to need little water and its seed can be pressed for biofuel oil.

Jatropha's chief selling point was that it can grow on land unfit for anything else, so it won't compete with food. That way it can provide farmers with a cash crop that they could sell. Earlier this decade, Kenya made jatropha the heart of a five year plan to develop a biofuel industry and encouraged farmers to grow the plant on their small plots.

(Soundbite of jatropha leaves rustling)

WADHAMS: Some have had success. That's the sound of waxy, healthy jatropha leaves at the nearby farm of Bonafist Muowkie(ph). His farm is seen as a model for jatropha in the region, brilliant green plants covered in seeds stand in tidy rows.

Muoekie's farm is a favorite stopping point for jatropha advocates trying to win over the skeptics. But he may not be the beacon that he's portrayed to be. Muoekie disregarded all the advice about jatropha and tends his plants fastidiously.

Mr. BONAFIST MUOWKIE: (Through Translator) Just like the human body, you have to feed the body, you have to take care of the body. You have to wash, you have to eat a good diet to remain healthy. The same for jatropha.

WADHAMS: Muowkie's work has paid off. Agricultural officer Festis Musteeia(ph) looks though a sack of brown, shiny seeds that feel a little oily to the touch.

How do they look, Festis?

Mr. FESTIS MUSTEEIA (Agricultural Officer): Very nice, very (unintelligible) they are healthy greens. Very nice.

WADHAMS: However, just up the road from Muowkie's success is Wellington Muwa's(ph) ten-acre farm. He also bought into the jatropha hype, yet Muwa's jatropha plants look more like naked twigs shoved into the ground. He says that three years ago, a salesman from Nairobi persuaded him to plant jatropha and offered to buy the seeds once they bore fruit. He never returned.

Mr. WELLINGTON MUWA: He had a big file and in fact it - we are talking - they told us how to space. But later we discovered that the method of planting they had given us was wrong.

WADHAMS: In his compound, chickens peck the earth around a lone jatropha tree. Muwa planted it a while back and told his wife to throw the dishwater onto it each day. Now it's the only jatropha shrub that's growing well on his entire farm.

Jatropha may not come close to matching the hype. A recent study of 289 farmers by Nairobi based consultancy Indolahu(ph) Energy found yields to be far lower than expected. And so far, there's no market in Kenya for plants that do produce seeds.

For now, the farmers of Kibwezi say they're sticking to jatropha, not necessarily out of hope, but because they've spent lots of money buying the seeds and they're making so little money anyhow that they can afford to wait and see what happens with the jatropha in their fields.

For NPR News, this is Nick Wadhams in Kibwezi.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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