A prevalent shrub that grows almost everywhere across Kenya could be the key to a sustainable source of biofuel, set to replace diesel and potentially feed Africa’s growing demand for cheap, low-carbon energy.
Called the croton tree, this plant is widely used for firewood and shade, but its less used component—its oilseed nuts—are a powerful source for biofuels. And while the croton industry is still fledgling, this macadamia-sized nut could help Africa meet its sustainable development goals of clean energy, climate action and poverty reduction.
As of now, Kenya imports all of its oil. In rural communities, diesel use is widespread for everything from trucks to water pumps, but is barely affordable for the poverty-stricken farmers that rely on it. Meanwhile, in urban areas, car exhaust is causing dangerous levels of air pollution. Croton oil, on the other hand, generates 78 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than diesel.
While a biofuel replacement sounds good, this isn't the first time Kenya has promised such a massive overhaul of the fossil fuel system. In 2000, a plant native to Central America, jatropha, was introduced to the Kenyan landscape and billed as the saving biofuel crop. The government then took land away from farmers to grow thousands of acres of monoculture jatropha. In the end, yields of the plant were “dismal” and because 90% of the jatropha crops were established on former agricultural land, companies kept their land titles, leaving hundreds of farmers with no jobs and no land.
This time around, however, the government and companies pushing the croton tree are doing it differently, building sustainable business practices into the movement.
For one, the industry could also improve rural livelihoods; through the production of oil for energy and other products (such as animal feed and fertilizer), croton harvesting is an opportunity for many poor farmers to rise out of poverty. The trees don’t require an investment in water or fertilizer, and the harvest can last up to six months, which means it's a steady source of income. Additionally, sellers get paid upon delivery, unlike coffee famers in the region who have to wait months for a payout.
Additionally, the croton industry could help with food security: While many biofuel crops take edible ingredients out of the market, the croton nut is inedible, meaning it does not displace food for consumption. Additionally, because croton trees already grow all over the region, there's no need to create massive monocultures like the jatropha days, which potentially displace other food crops.
“Instead of going the way of monoculture, we have decided to collaborate with small-scale holders and minimise the risk for everyone involved,” said Myles Katz, the managing director of Eco Fuels Kenya, a startup pioneering the use of croton nuts for biofuel.
Eco Fuels Kenya currently buys nuts from 5,000 farmers across Kenya, and more are expressing interest. Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources in the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, recently conducted a survey with Kenyan farmers to gauge interest in joining the movement. Most were ready to jump in.
“Many small farmers, although land constrained, have access to land to plant groves of croton trees if they become sold on the idea,” he said. “If they knew that there was going to be a dedicated market for croton, they would certainly add trees to their farm household lands.”
While all the pieces are in place for the industry to take off, it has been struggling in the face of falling diesel prices. Eco Fuels Kenya is struggling to find support, and foreign investors are wary of the market due to the failure of the jatropha. Jacobson says it's unlikely this crop will ever hit a global scale, but "if local entrepreneurs persevere and oil prices go up again, this unlikely cash crop could make a real dent in east Africa’s energy supply, 'which alone is good enough.'"