Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 40, Fall/Winter 1996
The CCD, Part I: Africa and the Mediterranean

Combating Desertification:
The Jatropha Project of Mali, West Africa

by Reinhard Henning

"Central hypothesis: The Jatropha System creates a positive reciprocity between energy production and environment/food production."

Image: African woman walking


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Mali is a landlocked country in the middle of West Africa, just at the southern edge of the Sahara desert. The country's average annual rainfall ranges from 200 mm in the north to 1200 mm in the south. For generations, farmers have protected their gardens with hedges of Jatropha curcas, or physic nut, which is not eaten by animals and thus protects the foodcrops as a living fence.

Jatropha curcas is a plant of Latin American origin which is now widespread throughout arid and semiarid tropical regions of the world. A member of the Euphorbiaceae family, it is a drought-resistant perennial, living up to 50 years and growing on marginal soils. A close relative to the castor plant, its oil has the same medical properties. Jatropha seeds contain about 35% of non-edible oil. The production of seeds is about 1 kg per meter of hedge per year, with an oil yield of 0.2 l. Currently, Mali has about 10,000 km of Jatropha hedges with a growth rate of 2,000 km per year, which represents a potential of 5,000,000 liters of oil. The average length of these hedges, in those areas of Mali where they are most prevalent, is between 2 and 15 km per village, with a maximum of up to 40 km per village. These areas, which have been evaluated as part of this project, include the:

  • Kita area, 180 km. west of Bamako (15 km of hedges)
  • Kangaba area, 100 km southwest of Bamako (7 km of hedges)
  • Fana area, 120 km east of Bamako (2 km of hedges)
  • Ouelessebougou area, 80 km south of Bamako (6 km of hedges)
  • Bougouni area, 200 km south of Bamako (4 km of hedges)

Jatropha curcas is generally well-known among the populations of Mali and has long been recognized as a plant of many uses. If carefully planted, Jatropha hedges not only protect gardens from hungry livestock but also reduce damage and erosion from wind and water. Traditionally the seeds were harvested by women and used for medical treatments and local soap production.

As far back as the 1930's the oil's potential as a fuel source was also recognized. Currently, it can be used to substitute for the "gazoil" mixture used in the Indian type diesel engines that drive grain mills and water pumps in rural areas of Mali. The high-quality oil extracted by engine-driven expellers or by manual ram-presses may be mixed with some of the extraction by-products and used for larger-scale soap making in rural areas, giving local women the chance to gain income and thus strengthen their economic position. Another extraction by-product can be used as a high-grade organic fertilizer.

The Jatropha Project was initiated in Mali in 1993 by German Technical Assistance (GTZ). The project, scheduled to continue through 1997, works to combine these and other factors into the Jatropha System. This system focuses not simply on the use of Jatropha oil as fuel, but rather on the use of this fuel as a crucial element to activiate a circular system combining ecologic, economic, and income-generating effects, the latter specifically for women.

Thus, the Jatropha system promotes four main aspects of development, which combine to help assure a sustainable way of life for village farmers and the land that supports them:

  • Renewable energy.
  • Erosion control and soil improvement.
  • Promotion of women.
  • Poverty reduction.

Renewable energy

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In the rural areas in Mali, Lister-type engines are used to drive grainmills and waterpumps. These inexpensive pre-combustion chamber diesel engines of Indian origin require only the addition of a fuel filter to be able to run on pure Jatropha oil, thus eliminating the need for gazoil entirely. Furthermore, at maximal load conditions the Jatropha oil gives even better results than gazoil because of its high oxygen content. Based on tests conducted by the Jatropha Project, the oil can also be successfully used as a lubricant in these engines.

In equivalent terms, the energy needed to produce Jatropha oil in mechanical presses amounts to less than 10% of the oil obtained. Because Jatropha oil can be produced inexpensively, it can also be sold at prices lower than gazoil's official price at the petrol stations. Even more important than the price is the possibility of local energy production, because of the periodic unavailability of gazoil in the rural areas caused by lack of road access during rainy season.

Erosion control and soil improvement

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Jatropha "living fences" in Mali not only control unwanted animal access to the fields; they also reduce wind erosion and, if planted parallel to slopes to fix small earth or stone dams, they help control water erosion. The plant's roots grow close to the ground surface, anchoring the soil like miniature dikes or earthen bunds. These dikes effectively slow surface runoff during intensive downpours, which are common, thus causing more water to penetrate into the soil and boosting harvests.

The press cake which remains after oil extraction by the expellers is a very good organic fertilizer, with mineral composition comparable to that of chicken manure. This has great value for agriculture in the Sahelian countries, since soils there are rapidly depleted of humus and chemical fertilizers are very expensive.

The Malian cotton-growing company, CMDT (Compagnie Malienne de Développement Textile), uses Jatropha hedges to assure a program of improved fallow: the cotton fields are protected with Jatropha hedges to keep out cattle, while the fields are sown with legumes to improve soil fertility.

Promotion of women

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Many government and non-government organizations provide rural Malian women with engine-driven grainmills to ease their work of food preparation. However, these grainmills need external resources of fuel, lubrication oil, spare parts and maintenance. Consequently, the introduction of such a grainmill tends to lead to an impoverishment of the village because of the cash required both to buy and to transport these external resources to the village. By using locally produced Jatropha oil as fuel and lubrication oil, some of this cash outflow from the village can be stopped.

Traditionally, rural women used Jatropha curcas for medicine (seeds as a laxative, latex to stop bleeding and against infections, leaves against malaria) and for soap production. The traditional soap-making process is very labor-intensive, producing small amounts of relatively poor-quality soap. When machine-produced Jatropha oil products are used, either alone or in combination with other local plant oils such as shea butter, larger amounts of a more refined soap are produced. The women can easily sell this soap in local markets and nearby towns, increasing their possibilities of earning income with local resources.

Poverty reduction

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By promoting the integrated utilization of the Jatropha plant, the Jatropha System can provide direct financial benefits to the rural economy. To illustrate this with a rough calculation, assume the average village of the pilot area has 15 km of Jatropha hedges, which represents 15 tons of seeds or 3,000 liters of pure oil. These 15 tons of seed can be sold to the women's group that runs the grain mill and oil press, at a value of 750,000 FCFA to the sellers. 1,000 liters of the oil are used as fuel by the women's group, representing a value of 250,000 FCFA that stays in the village rather than being spent on gazoil. If the 2,000 remaining liters are used for soap production, an additional income of about 900,000 FCFA is possible, for a total value of 1,900,000 FCFA. This is about 3,800 US$, which represents about 130 monthly rural incomes for a village with about 1,000 people or 50 to 70 families.

The System also helps reduce poverty by:

  • Reducing crop losses caused by wandering livestock or wind damage
  • Increasing rainfall infiltration, resulting in less work/irrigation water needed for local gardens
  • Increasing soil fertility by use of presscake as fertilizer
  • Increasing use of inexpensive local resources rather than expensive external resources
  • Reducing disputes between farmers and livestock owners regarding crop damage, as well as among farmers themselves regarding the boundaries of their fields
  • Providing local jobs, lessening the need for local villagers to migrate to cities to find employment

Because of its economic value the rural people are planting new Jatropha hedges in a large extent In Kita, one of the pilot regions of the Jatropha project, the average length of hedges went up from 5 km to 15 km in 8 years.


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The results of the Jatropha Project to date show that the chances of this system being successfully implemented are high, provided that a cautious approach is taken. Above all, care must be taken to ensure that women retain their traditional responsibilities for harvesting and processing the seeds.

Furthermore, Mali is a typical Sahelian country; its large geographic expanse and climatic variations mirror the ecological conditions found throughout the Sahel. Because of this, the efforts already being made in Mali to derive value from oil-bearing plants can be taken as representative and used to elaborate a "concept for production and use of plant oils as fuel" that is valid for the Sahel region as a whole, and even for other African countries.

Such projects will have the best chance of being cost-effective where the following conditions hold:

  • High transportation expenses
  • Extensive wastelands unfit for agricultural production of food and cash crops
  • Availability of labor for harvesting and processing
  • Need to offset hard currency expenditures on diesel products.

To summarize, the Jatropha system is characterized by many positive ecological, energetic and economic aspects that are attached to the commercial exploitation of this plant. The more this plant is exploited, the better for the environment and for food production.

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Author information

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Reinhard Henning directed the Jatropha Project in Mali and has extensive experience working on biogas and other renewable energy projects. Since this article was written, he has returned to Germany. You can contact him as follows:
Reinhard Henning
Tel: +49 8389 9 82 82
Fax: +49 8389 9 82 81

Additional Web Resources

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West Africa's Rural Communities Launch Their Industrial Revolution
[29 October 1999, document no longer available]
This article about UNIDO's activities in Burkina Faso and Mali gives information on the "Pilot Project for Development and Dissemination of Appropriate Food Processing Equipment for Rural Women in Sub-Saharan Africa."

Success Stories in Food Security
This 1996 World Food Summit technical background document from the FAO includes information on food security-related projects in Tunisia and Burkina Faso, as well as other African and non-African countries.

Direct Seeding - The Natural Solution for Revegetating Arid Lands
The Eden Foundation is a Scandinavian NGO working on revegetation projects in the Sahel area; this article discusses their methods and successes.

Sustainable Rural Development in West Africa - The Naam Movement and the Six 'S'
This is a success story from Burkina Faso about a "bottom-up," locally controlled village development 'movement' created with the aim "To make the village responsible for its own development, developing without destroying, starting from the peasant."

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