In Search of Sustainable Biofuels in Tanzania

The following excerpt from Chapter 6 of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press 2019) chronicles the failed attempt by British Sun Biofuels to make biodiesel from jatropha plants in Kisarawe, Tanzania. And the more modest and sustainable efforts by Kakute and other community organizations to harness the plant’s potential for sustainable and equitable small-scale economic development. Kakute proudly celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Sun Biofuels dissolved in 2016. Villagers in Kisarawe are still waiting to get their land back.

Sun Biofuels’ jatropha plantation before the speculative project collapsed, Kisarawe, Tanzania. (Tom Pietrasik/ActionAid)

Villagers near the Tanzanian town of Kisarawe got the full fury of the integration of food, fuel, and financial markets. They agreed to what turned out to be a speculative land deal to grow jatropha, a little-used African plant, for biofuels. When it failed they were left on the outside of their 20,000 acres looking in. Fittingly, it was Goldman Sachs that first identified jatropha as a good bet for oil for biodiesel.[1]

Britain-based Sun Biofuels had secured a 99-year lease with promises not just of compensation for the land but jobs, roads, clinics, schools, and wells. The company started by clearing 5,000 acres of mostly forestland and planted jatropha trees, an oilseed crop. Europe was looking for feedstock to meet its renewal-fuel mandates for biofuel use, and jatropha was the new “green gold.” Jatropha was supposed to be a biofuels miracle crop, because it was native to Africa, it was inedible and therefore would not compete with food or feed crops, and it was advertised as growing on “marginal lands,” so it would not compete for cropland. Jatropha was all the rage across Africa in the wake of the 2007–8 food price spikes, attracting venture capitalists like the ones behind Sun Biofuels.[2]

As it turned out, jatropha was a bust, particularly for speculators. It took 3–4 years to get a crop, a long time for impatient capital. It hadn’t really been domesticated for commercial cultivation, so no one really knew what varieties would grow well and be suitable for biofuel production. Early indications were that to be productive it needed more water than other biodiesel feed stocks.[3] Sure it grew on marginal lands, but only with marginal returns. The last thing investors wanted were marginal returns, so they went for good agricultural lands, setting up the food-fuel competition yet again.

By the time I was in Tanzania in 2014, Sun Biofuels had ceased production, and so had most of the other jatropha projects in Africa.[4] I asked to meet with the company, and I was told that Mtanga Foods had taken over the lease and I could meet with Valerie Fernandes who was managing Mtanga. She had also worked for Sun Biofuels, which made me suspicious. When she acknowledged that Sun Biofuels and Mtanga had “overlapping boards of directors,” this started to look very much like Sun Biofuels was just flipping the land to Mtanga after securing the lease with a lot of false promises to villagers. She was entirely dismissive when I asked if Mtanga would honor the development commitments Sun Biofuels had made to secure the land — the clinics, roads, wells, schools. She was adamant. The company had paid compensation and that was all they owed. And the villagers were presumptuous to think that Mtanga had any obligation even to consult with them about their plans.[5]

I was shocked at her candor. So were the villagers I met the next day in Kisarawe. They’d never heard of Mtanga. They hadn’t even been told the lease had been transferred. They just wanted their land back. “We used to fetch water, it was close,” explained Salima Nasoro, a brightly clad woman from Muhaga village. “We used clay for handicrafts. We cut poles for construction. We made timber. We got charcoal. We kept bees. We collected traditional medicines.” Now, the land was mostly off-limits. They hadn’t grown much food on the land before, but they had depended on the forest the way rural communities often do. With much of the forest gone and the land under guard, they had lost even those benefits. They’d even lost one of their burial grounds. Now all they had was a graveyard of scraggly, untended jatropha trees. A 5,000-acre jatropha graveyard.

Tanzanian Land Minister Anna Tibaijuka called actions like these “equivalent to Ponzi Schemes.” But a lawyer in the Land Ministry told me there was little chance the lease would be canceled and the land returned to villagers. The Tanzanian government was committed to the same failing policies as Mozambique and other African countries, betting on large-scale foreign land projects to develop its rural sector, and letting those investors take projects to a scale that made no sense under local conditions.

In the northern city of Arusha, I learned that, much like the early days of corn ethanol, farming jatropha had been a local initiative to help farmers get cash and useful products from something they were already growing. Jatropha was indeed native to the region. It was commonly used by the nomadic Nyaburu tribe in nearby Singida to mark the graves of those who died far from home. The plant was indeed drought-tolerant, even if it needed a lot of water to produce commercial biodiesel oil. It was also a common hedgerow, widely planted by villagers at the urging of former President Julius Nyerere to keep nomadic herds from eating crops. The oilseeds were indeed poisonous so they kept away animals. You could find a lot of jatropha bordering croplands, but no one was doing anything with the oilseeds.

Maybe Goldman Sachs, Sun Biofuels, and all the other speculators just misunderstood the word “marginal,” I thought. They didn’t mean land that was poor quality, they meant land along the margins of farms.

Livinus Manyanga, who co-founded Kakute, a non-governmental organization that promotes small-scale development in the area, laughed at my bad joke. He was a mechanical engineer by training. He had helped the Tanzanian government develop its biofuel policies. He said he told the foreign biofuel companies jatropha wouldn’t work on plantations. He said it is not as easy a crop as they thought; it needs water, fertilizer, and frequent pruning. “I told them, wait four or five years and you will collapse.”

Kakute had been working to add value to local farmers’ jatropha for years. On the organization’s own 75-acre farm they put jatropha as hedgerows, and they learned that the crop was very labor-intensive, not easy to automate. They got good productivity, up to 25 pounds of oil from each tree. But the oil still ended up being expensive for commercial uses. Still, he explained that only one-quarter or one-third of the value of the crop is in the oil. Reducing jatropha to just oil was a waste of its potential. In the south, Kakute showed that at a village level the crop could be valuable. The organization developed an inexpensive way to press the oil from the seeds and a generator that could run on straight vegetable oil. With one solar panel, that could give a village that didn’t yet have electricity a 24-hour source of power. Even without the new equipment, Manyanga said the oil made soap, which meant villagers didn’t have to use scarce cash to buy it. And it was perfect for household lamplight too.

“You start with soap, which you can make locally,” he said, clearly proud of Kakute’s useful innovations. “Then you can use the seed cake to make cooking material so you don’t cut trees for charcoal. The jatropha trees last for 25 years, and they will make your land green.”

Kakute helped start Jatropha Products Tanzania Limited to develop a market for jatropha products, turning farmers’ hedgerows into needed cash. The group was working with 2,700 farmers helping them produce, use, and sell a range of jatropha products, including organic fertilizer and briquettes made from the seed cake to use as a cooking substitute for charcoal.

“Many things that are good start very small and grow,” Stephen Minja, director of Jatropha Products told me. “But maybe only to medium size.”

Jan Gevaert had come the closest to taking that model to a larger scale, but when he met me at Arusha’s Impala Hotel he was closing up shop. Under his direction, the Dutch Diligent Energy Systems had tried to expand markets for small-scale farmers, including for the production of commercial biodiesel. As part of the so-called Trickle Out Project, Diligent was purchasing seeds from some 60,000 farmers for the production of oil for local use and export, briquettes for industrial use as a fuel, and pellets for household cooking needs. Diligent encouraged farmers to plant jatropha as hedgerows but to avoid competing with food production the company told them they wouldn’t buy from them if they planted on other land. The company was part of the international effort to make biofuels sustainable, with a focus on reducing indirect land use change. Diligent had won some acclaim because its biodiesel had been used in a test flight by the Dutch carrier KLM in 2009. [6]

“It’s the only model that can work at this point, you have to have enough farmers,” he told me. Funded by venture capital, Diligent needed 100,000 farmers to make the project viable, with small amounts from each. They didn’t get there, and the patient capital ran out of patience as capital markets recovered from the financial crisis. “I still strongly, strongly believe in that model,” Gevaerts said, sad to let go of an initiative in which he had clearly invested a lot. He said the project needed just one more year of financing to turn a profit.

Manyanga agreed. “It could have worked.” Still, he seemed relieved that the biofuel-driven jatropha boom had gone bust, saying it had diverted everyone from the crop’s true potential. Maybe they could now get back to small-scale development. “You are not going to make a lot of money,” he told me. “You will just be changing the local economy.”

[1] Patrick Barta, “Jatropha Plant Gains Steam In Global Race for Biofuels,” The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2007, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118788662080906716.

[2] For more on the Sun Biofuels story, see Timothy A. Wise, “Picking up the Pieces from a Failed Land Grab Project in Tanzania,” GlobalPost, June 27, 2014, sec. Conflict & Justice, https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-06-27/picking-pieces-failed-land-grab-project-tanzania; Josie Cohen, “How a Biofuels Landgrab Has Destroyed the Life of an African Village,” ActionAid (blog), October 31, 2011, http://www.actionaid.org/2011/10/how-biofuels-landgrab-has-destroyed-life-african-village; Stefano Liberti, Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism, 2013, Chapter 6.

[3] W. Gerbens-Leenes, A. Y. Hoekstra, and T. H. van der Meer, “The Water Footprint of Bioenergy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 25 (June 23, 2009): 10222, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0812619106.

[4] Donald L. Kgathi et al., “A Review of the Sustainability of Jatropha Cultivation Projects for Biodiesel Production in Southern Africa: Implications for Energy Policy in Botswana,” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 246 (August 2017): 314–24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2017.06.014.

[5] Valerie Fernandes, “RE: Request to an Interview/Meeting,” June 3, 2014; her email stated: “With all due respect, surely the villagers do not expect to be consulted on the plans for a farm that belongs to Sun Biofuels? I agree the villages surround the land but do they contribute to the upkeep of the land that they expect to be consulted?”

[6] “Diligent Tanzania Ltd,” Trickle Out Africa, n.d., https://trickleout.net/index.php/directory-pilot/Tanzania_/diligent-tanzania-ltd; Finnigan Wa Simbeye, “Tanzania: Dutch Firm Goes Bust Leaving Thousands of Farmers in Limbo,” Tanzania Daily News (Dar Es Salaam), January 6, 2015, http://allafrica.com/stories/201501060764.html.

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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