CHIMOIO, Mozambique — The lines of small bushy plants stretch out across the rolling hills of central Mozambique, dew-covered and shining in the morning sunlight. Peter Whitehead walks down the rows smiling like only a father can at the somewhat scrubby, greasy little jatropha shrubs.
Whitehead, a forester from Knysna, South Africa, is starting up a farm of jatropha trees as a source of biofuel oil.
Jatropha's origins are murky, with some experts suggesting it is a Central American or African crop, but Whitehead believes it comes from the Indian subcontinent and has been grown there for centuries. The bush becomes a tree about the size of a large cherry tree and, although its fruits are inedible, they produce very fine oil. The oil can be used to power diesel cars, trucks, ships and even airplanes.
Sun Biofuels, a British company, has been planting thousands of acres of jatropha at a former tobacco farm here and in other sites in Africa. The company hopes the jatropha oil will help it cash in on the high price of fuel as well as offer an alternative fuel for companies that want to clean up their emissions and their image by investing in green energy.
A few years ago, biofuels were part of the worldwide craze for green energy, but after the food price shocks of 2008, which saw global food commodity prices double or triple in much of the developing world, the idea of planting fuel has lost some of its shine. Plowing up thousands of acres of maize, and planting an inedible crop like jatropha in a poor country like Mozambique, where many people are hungry, is problematic to many people. But like much of the climate change debate, the issues around jatropha are not clear cut.
Mozambique has massive unemployment and it's one of the world's 10 least developed countries. The local and national government ministers in Mozambique all came to the launch of the farm, and said they hope this sort of project will be a success and lure more investors to their country with other new ideas. Mozambique only cultivates 20 percent of its arable land, one of the lowest cultivation rates in Africa. Sun Biofuels argues there should be room for all sorts of farming, particularly ones that bring education and employment.
At their Mozambican operation, Sun Biofuels took over an old tobacco farm and became the main employer in the area. Shouting above the noise of the big Toyota bouncing between row after row of green little bushes, Whitehad explained that the project is an experiment in the making.
"No one has ever done this in Africa, and there are only a few farms in the world. We are working with new seed, a whole new crop that has never been tamed." He explained that the project supports a school, a police station and trains workers in different aspects of the operation of the farm.
Other biofuel projects have had troubles. British Petroleum (BP) took a big loss when it sold out the world's biggest jatropha farm in Brazil last year. D1 Oils, which bought the farm, is still in business and they should remain so at least until the end of 2010, according to their financial statements.
Many investors have been lured to jatropha because it seemed to do everything. It could live on marginal land, so crops were not affected, it had a huge oil content, it needed little water, the yields were high, and it could be inter-cropped, planted next to coffee or tea, or on the margins of roads. But all of this is speculation. None of these things are known, even five years into farming jatropha. Whitehead, now one of Africa's experts on the plant, explains that only when the trees reach maturity on this new plantation and a few similiar ones around the world, will the facts on Jatropha be known.
The huge buzz around this obscure little bush does not die away in a puff of smoke. To promote jatropha as a green alternative for jets, Air New Zealand, Boeing and Rolls Royce have tested it for use as jet fuel, flying into Houston to help make their point.
About 37 percent of a jatropha seed is oil. This oil can actually be burned in a diesel engine without much refining, and there is potentially a lot of it per acre. How much? No one knows. The tree has never been matured in a farm field, planted in rows, tended to like a precious fruit tree.
It's a gamble, but one that Whitehead is clearly enjoying. His big farmer's hand stretches out to the startling vista across the hills as he points out one of the granite peaks before stopping for a photograph. "We are doing our best here, literally breaking new ground, and I suppose that if it doesn't work, we will plant something else".
He smiles, he eyes returning with something like love to shrub at his feet, "but I think it will."