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Global Ideas

'Jatropha has a great future'

Jatropha expert Klaus Becker from the University of Hohenheim talks to Global Ideas.

Jatropha plant in Senegal

Jatropha in Senegal

Klaus Becker is a retired professor who has has long researched the jatropha plant at the University of Hohenheim. He's now head of the company JatroSolutions. He currently supports a thousand-hectare jatropha project with small-scale farmers in Madagascar.

Global Ideas: Mr Becker, how did you get interested in jatropha?

Klaus Becker:
20 years ago, the head of a development project in Nicaragua got in touch with me. The idea was to cut Nicaragua's reliance on external oil with the help of jatropha. In our laboratory in Hohenheim, we developed a process to remove poison from the jatropha flour after the oil was extracted. You can then use it as soya replacement in animal feed and through these multiple uses, the whole thing can be very economical.

Why do you think jatropha is so special?

Around the world, some 8 to 10 million hectares of land are lost each year through degradation. There are 500 million small-scale farms, all in tropical countries and located on bad land. From this barren land, the farmers still have 20 to 30 percent that's so poor in quality that you can't do anything with it. That's exactly where jatropha should be grown! Jatropha can actually reverse land degradation. It's a very  hardy plant with deep-growing roots. It works like reforestation. Rainwater is stopped and that fills the ground water levels and at some point you can get the area back. The women tell us that the wells now dry up significantly later.The ground becomes fertile again, the birds come back. There are nests with eggs everywhere. Jatropha has a great future.

But how do you see the „food vs. fuel“ argument?

We don't say that the people should be using good farmland for jatropha. They should try and win back their degraded areas and at the same time have an additional income right from the first year. If a small farmer sells these jatropa seeds, he can perhaps be able to afford a tractor at some point. Through climate change, the rains are becoming unpredictable and for instance, in Madagascar the season is becoming much shorter. The dry earth however is too hard to till. That means, the farmers physically hardly have any time to laboriously till their fields with their hands. The people have to be in a situation where this heavy, physical labor is replaced by technology. Jatropha affords a way to do that.