The Cinderella Plant

Jatropha Circas is the Cinderella of the plant world. Throw a seed in the poorest soil on the planet, and up comes a bush that will likely last 50 years. During a drought, jatropha bushes simply drop their leaves and keep pumping out seedpods. Livestock won't eat it, pests don't appear to like it. For longer than anybody can remember, Africans used it as living fences meant to keep back the encroaching Sahara and Kalahari deserts. It wasn't good for much else.

Now this humble bush appears poised to become a global star. In recent years studies have shown that jatropha oil burns with one fifth the carbon emission of fossil fuels, making Africa's hardscrabble ground a potentially fertile source of energy. Scientists estimate that if even a quarter of the continent's arable land were plowed into jatropha plantations, output would surpass 20 million barrels a day. That would be good news for Europe, where the thirst for biodiesel is growing. The European Union has decreed that consumers will use 5.75 percent biodiesel in motor vehicles by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020, which means that Europe has to come up with a 10.5 billion-liter supply of biodiesel in the next four years. With maize prices going through the roof, scientists are experimenting with alternative nonfood crops in the lab; so far, jatropha is the only one ready for commercialization.

The result has been a land rush of sorts in Africa. Experimental jatropha plantations are now popping up in virtually every corner of the continent, from Kenya, to Ghana, to South Africa. It's difficult to say how much African land is currently being cultivated with jatropha, but there are fields in Benin, Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, and at least 990,000 hectares in Burkina Faso.

Norwegian, Indian and British companies are racing to buy up or lease enormous swaths of African land for jatropha plantations. U.K.-based D1 Oils has bought 20,000 hectares in Malawi and 15,000 hectares in Zambia. India's IKF Tech has requested government leases for a total of 150,000 hectares of land in Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa. Worldwide Bio Refineries, a U.K. firm, has 40,000 hectares set aside for production in Nigeria, with planting to begin in May. A biofuel conference in Cape Town last month drew 200 attendants, prompting one participant to declare: "Southern Africa has the potential to be the Middle East of biofuels."

Such claims may be premature. To be sure, jatropha plantations could give Africa an economic boost. "I think jatropha is something that will carry many economies to new heights," says Ephraim Boakye-GyImah, a supervisor at the AngloGold Ashanti gold mine in Obuasi, which began planting jatropha seedlings in reclaimed mine waste in central Ghana last year. So far, however, most ventures are still in the planting and growing stages; at present, the continent is producing almost no jatropha oil. "If we had the finest refinery here today, we still couldn't operate because there's no feedstock," admits Jack Holden, director of Goldstar Biodiesel, a biofuels firm.

African countries are trying to attract foreign investment to ramp up the number of farms. Ghana, for instance, has earmarked $1.6 million as seed money to help establish jatropha plantations. In addition to being skittish about Africa, investors are skeptical that the continent has infrastructure to support full-scale oil production, which requires refinery and transportation. African farmers, who've known jatropha only as a weed, have been slow to catch on to its new status in the world. Three years ago the Adventist Development and Relief Agency used a $50,000 grant from the United Nations Development Program to persuade 3,000 farmers into setting aside one-half hectare each for jatropha, to try to develop a supply of seeds for farmers. But no one has been willing to buy the seeds. "The farmers would go out at night and cut down the jatropha trees because their neighbors were laughing at them," says Holden. "They haven't been able to sell a single seed." If Africa is going to be the next Middle East, farmers better get planting.