Kenya is joining a long list of countries planning to produce diesel fuel from the poisonous-but-oil-rich seeds of the jatropha tree, a plant indigenous to South America. The tree is at the heart of a five-year strategy to develop a bio-fuel industry in Kenya, which is expected to reduce the country's dependence on imported fossil fuels without threatening food security. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
The jatropha plant can grow more than three meters high and produce golf ball-sized fruit. The fruit's poisonous seeds have been mainly used for medicinal purposes, but in recent years, researchers have discovered that the oil in the seeds can be processed into high-quality diesel fuel.
A senior official at Kenya's Ministry of Energy, Faith Odongo, tells VOA that preliminary tests have shown that the jatropha tree can be successfully grown in Kenya.
She says about 5,000 hectares of land are being set aside for cultivation amid growing expectations that the plant could help the country reduce its fossil fuel imports by five percent in the next four years.
A hectare of jatropha can produce as much as 1,900 liters of fuel, which is several times more than can be produced from a hectare of traditional bio-fuel products such as soybeans and corn.
"We expect it will make a big impact particularly in rural development and in the transport industry," said Odongo.
Odongo says the government's objective in rural areas is to promote the replacement of kerosene and gasoline with bio-diesel. She says jatropha oil is just as effective as kerosene for lighting lamps and is ideal for fueling bio-diesel electricity generators.
Because the tree is drought-resistant and can be grown on soil that is not suitable for food crops, Odongo says jatropha would not have to compete for land and resources in food-producing areas.
Jatropha production, she adds, may even help alleviate poverty in some rural communities.
"That is why we are trying to promote the plant, so that those who do not have a cash-crop can rely on that as their cash-crop," she said.
Another benefit for Kenya is that the cultivation of jatropha could significantly counter the effects of deforestation in other parts of the country.
Developed in India for assignments.neb-wire fuel oil, jatropha has been attracting international attention in recent years as a new bio-fuel source.
India, China, and Brazil have already planted millions of hectares of jatropha, and the plant is being tested in nurseries and farms in the United States and Japan.
Major car companies such as Daimler Chrysler are exploring the use of jatropha oil for automotive use and in November, Air New Zealand says it plans to test-fly a 747-Boeing jet using jatropha bio-diesel mixed with aviation fuel.