Eye on Mali: Jatropha Oil Lights Up Villages

Jatropha curcas plant, used to make oil in Mali
The Jatropha curcas plant.
Photo by R. K. Henning

Some 700 communities in Mali have installed biodiesel generators powered by oil from the hardy Jatropha curcas plant to meet their energy needs, according to Reuters. The Malian government is promoting cultivation of the inedible oilseed bush, commonly used as a hedge or medicinal plant, to provide electricity for lighting homes, running water pumps and grain mills, and other critical uses. Mali hopes to eventually power all of the country’s 12,000 villages with affordable, renewable energy sources.

The landlocked West African nation, at the southern edge of the Sahara desert, is seeking to boost the standard of living of its 80-percent-rural population and to reduce migration from impoverished rural areas. “People have to have light, to have cool air, to be able to store vaccines, even to watch national television,” Aboubacar Samake, head of the jatropha program at the government-funded National Centre for Solar and Renewable Energy, told Reuters. “As things stand, a snake can bite someone in a village and they have to go to [the capital] Bamako to get a vaccine.”

Energy self-sufficiency is another goal of the program. Private international companies have offered to develop the jatropha industry in Mali, but were told the biofuel would not be approved for export until the country’s domestic energy needs were met. Standard diesel and other imported fossil fuels can be costly to transport to remote villages and are unaffordable for much of the nation’s population. Jatropha provides an inexpensive, local source of fuel, with the plant’s seeds containing about 35 percent oil.

Because jatropha can be grown on arid land, requires little care, and can help prevent erosion, it is more likely to complement than compete with food crops—a common concern with many biofuels. “They came to explain the project to us and said that if we grow jatropha it can produce oil to make the machine work,” said Daouda Doumbia, an elder in the Malian village of Simiji, which was recently outfitted with a biodiesel generator. “I grow groundnuts, and this activity can go alongside it as a partner crop,” he explained.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.