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Jatropha: creating desert solutions

Jatropha plant with fruit (Mali-Folkecenter)
Jatropha plant with fruit

Despite tumbling prices in West Africa's cotton industry, farmers have not lost their entrepreneurial spirit. Mali may well be the second largest producer of cotton in sub-Saharan Africa, but Oxfam has reported that compared to previous years, local cotton farmers are suffering price cuts of up to 20 per cent. The Mali-Folkecenter (MFC), set up to stimulate the local economy and prevent environmentally harmful practices, is looking to the exciting possibilities and variation of products offered by the desert crop jatropha.

Jatropha (Jatropha curcas) is an oil producing shrub, which is easy to grow and thrives in desert climates. It can grow on abandoned or sandy soils and a dried cutting pushed into the soil will take just two days to take root, producing seed within a year. In Mali, the plant is traditionally cultivated in hedges usually around gardens, to protect the soil and surrounding crops from wind and water erosion.

Preventing destructive practices and protecting the environment are key aims of the MFC. Cotton farming has, however, added to the pressure on Mali's natural resources. In an attempt to earn higher returns from cotton, farmers have used large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to increase their yield, putting human and environmental health at risk. To make matters worse, high fuel prices and endemic poverty have encouraged deforestation on a large scale, accelerating soil erosion and desertification. Better exploitation of jatropha, however, could offer income from a wide range of innovative products, and help to reduce unsustainable wood cutting.

Soaking up the benefits

Traditionally in Mali, jatropha seed is collected by women (Mali-Folkecenter)
Traditionally in Mali, jatropha seed is collected by women

Traditionally in Mali, jatropha seed is collected by women and pressed into a natural rough black soap by hand. The seeds are de-husked and peeled, then pounded, mixed with water and heated. When the mixture is cool, it is moulded into balls of soap, a popular dermatological product used for skin problems. Using a mechanical press introduced by MFC, the process of making soap has been improved. It is now possible to extract oil which can be processed into higher-value white soap with a smooth texture.

Under the MFC, one initiative known as Sinsibere, meaning "the support received to start something new", has secured funding to establish a local women's co-operative, which sells both shea nut butter and jatropha soap. Currently the soaps are sold at local markets, but the co-operative aims to extend its reach. With improved hygiene and an increase in the quantity and variety of products, the hope is to supply to the national as well as international markets. The Sinsibere project also promotes ecological farming methods, using organic and natural pesticides instead of chemical substitutes.

Fuel for thought

Other uses for jatropha have also been encouraged and facilitated by the MFC. For example, jatropha can be made into a pressed cake and used as soil fertiliser. But perhaps most appealingly where fuel prices are high, the inedible oil can be purified into engine grade fuel, using a locally developed sedimentation and filtration system. The organisation is currently testing a scheme to provide one rural community with electricity generated by locally supplied jatropha oil. Around 1,000 hectares of jatropha will be planted by small-scale farmers for this purpose and, if the pilot project is a success, it will pave the way for other similar schemes around the country.

Communication to avoid conflict

The MFC has not been without challenges in its work. Making jatropha seeds into soap is a traditional activity for women, but the high value of improved soap did not go unrecognised by the owners of the gardens - usually men. They were no longer happy for women to take the seeds from their hedges without receiving payment. Due to lack of communication between those involved in the project, this created conflict and a shortage of seeds with which to make soap.

Young jatropha plant (Mali-Folkecenter)
Young jatropha plant

To avoid such conflict in the future, MFC has introduced literacy courses for women, allowing them to participate more openly in decision-making activities in the village. Literacy training has also helped women to take advantage of micro-finance schemes, where women's associations have collected their own money in micro-credit banks. Better organisation and administration have allowed communities in Mali to plant over 50 hectares of jatropha in and around gardens and abandoned fields in five villages, mostly managed by women.

Small-scale farmers in Mali now have an alternative income, supporting low prices obtained from cotton, preventing deforestation and, quite literally, fuelling the future.

Date published: May 2007


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