Rows of neatly planted bush-sized trees stretch away to the horizon. Harry Stourton surveys the scene with pride. “Here, look at these,” the 38-year-old pioneering British businessman says, holding out a handful of jatropha fruit pods, the size of large grapes.
It is barely 14 months since Sun Biofuels planted its first crop of jatropha curcas, a little-known oil-bearing plant originally from Central America. Now the British-based renewable energy company is set to extract its first output and, possibly, revolutionise the green energy business.
The fast-growing plant produces seeds with an oil content ranging from 20 to 45 per cent. If it can be harvested commercially, it has the potential to transform the biofuels industry and provide poor African countries such as Mozambique with a new source of economic investment.
Demand for green energy is set to soar. From next year, European Union legislation will require that all transportation fuels contain a 10 per cent biofuel component. Last week China reiterated its plan to source 15 per cent of its diesel and petrol from renewable sources by 2020. Existing sources, among them rape and sunflower seed, cannot meet these targets. Jatropha could be the answer.
“It presents a massive opportunity for investment, employment and development for developing countries such as Mozambique. They have the capacity to become major suppliers to this fast-evolving industry,” according to Mr Stourton, the business development director of Sun Biofuels.
So the company has invested $7.5 million (£5 million) planting the crop on 5,000 hectares. It has a similar project under way on 8,000 hectares in Tanzania.
“In Mozambique,” Mr Stourton said, “our farms are former tobacco plantations. After the collapse of that industry, we moved in to plug the gap, creating thousands of jobs, bringing social projects and improving access to health and better education. So where once was grown a drug, we now cultivate clean energy.”
Jatropha, brought to Africa in the 19th century, grows wild across the continent. It requires far less water than other oil seed crops and its oil-bearing content has been known for years: in colonial Mozambique, Portuguese settlers used it in street lamps. Its quality is not in doubt, but Sun Biofuels has poured resources and manpower into making its production commercially viable. Yields vary enormously and even adjacent plants flower at different times, making mechanical picking difficult.
“This is pioneering work. The challenges are incredible. We have to find out more about what exactly makes this plant tick, what makes it flower and fruit — how much and when? These are all still enigmas,” Noel Myburgh, a South African plant breeder hired by the company to oversee field research, said.
Every jatropha plant currently produces about 3kg of seed per year, which translates roughly into seven tonnes per hectare. That results in two to three tonnes of oil.
Mr Stourton, an incurable optimist and advocate of renewable energy, said that could be more than doubled. “When palm oil grew wild in the jungle, it produced some four tonnes a hectare; with management, that went to thirty. With selection and crop service techniques, modern fertilisers, pest controls and so on, we would expect a significant increase in jatropha yields.”
If that happens, the plant could take off. International airlines are set to join the emissions trading scheme in 2012 and will have to pay large penalties for air pollution. They are desperate to increase the green component in aviation fuel and this year Lufthansa, which has sent a delegation to Sun Biofuels’ Mozambique project, will become the first airline to operate a daily flight between Hamburg and Frankfurt on a 50 per cent bio-jet fuel blend.