From Fruit to Biodiesel

A Biofuel Factory
A biofuel factory in Shenzhen, established under a UNDP programme with the Ministry of Science and Technology. Photo © Yan Lu

Hainanese farmer, Song Heyi, is excited, and for good reason. Drawing on his entrepreneurial skills and with the combined assistance of UNDP and the Ministry of Science and Technology, he is transforming non-arable wasteland into a sustainable business and an environmental asset.

At the heart of Song’s enthusiasm is the hardy Jatropha Curcas Linnaeus tree. Cultivated mainly for use as farm hedgerows in arid regions, Jatropha’s seeds are also oil rich and well suited for conversion into biodiesel. Properly cultivated, it also has the potential to prevent soil erosion and desertification.

Highlights

  • "Annual increases in average incomes by 4,500 yuan for local women farmers, with little to no previous income, have provided a timely boost to local economies, improved local employment opportunities and contributed significantly to poverty reduction."

Under a joint Green Development Action Plan, UNDP and the Ministry of Science and Technology have been helping more than 300 farmers from poor communities like Song’s, to adopt innovative and environmentally friendly practices that also generate income and assets. These efforts have led to the widespread emergence of commercial Jatropha plantations for conversion into biodiesel, with farmers in ecologically fragile regions in Hainan, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangdong provinces receiving managerial and technical support.

In order to provide a strong platform for transition, farmer associations were organised in each of the four provinces, to raise farmer’ income, protect farmers’ rights and interests, train members, maximise the potential of their plantation sites and promote the growing of Jatropha.

The results are impressive. Pilot plantations have demonstrated the potential to achieve an annual yield of 1 million yuan (equivalent to US$156,000) per hectare of land once Jatropha can be developed to produce biofuel, animal feed and pesticides. Meanwhile, an annual increase in average incomes by 4,500 yuan (equivalent to US$700) for many local women farmers, with little to no previous income, has provided a timely boost to local economies and improved local employment opportunities. In turn, this extra revenue has contributed significantly to poverty reduction, where farmers have been able to lift themselves out of poverty for the first time by acquiring trees that can be used as collateral for loans.


Song Heyi explains that a major part of this project’s success has been its ability to enable farmers to harness their entrepreneurial spirit. Excited by the prospect of biodiesel production, Song himself rented 100 hectares of land two years ago in Lingao County, near Haikou in Hainan Province, on a 30-year lease. Working hard to transform an area that was once regarded as desolate wasteland, he has since increased his income and become a significant contributor to local employment. Having hired a group of local famers to work on his plantation, Song now anticipates having to add even more labour in order to manage his growing interests. With the backing of his existing plantation assets, he is also making plans to expand his plantation area to 30,000 hectares over the next few years.

Supporting the development of Jatropha’s plantations is only part of the challenge. Linkages established between farmer associations and biodiesel refineries and end markets have had to be forged to address the cost of production. Though further research will be required to achieve sustainable economies of scale, the project has helped to bring together national and local government agencies, research institutes, the private sector and end users – such as airline companies – to ensure the stability of raw material supplies, viable markets and a strong institutional support network that local communities can draw upon for assistance and support.

The project has also been successful in linking regions together to broaden the supply potential and promote the advantages of green development through a series of knowledge sharing events, joint field visits and conferences. As a consequence, representatives from similarly underdeveloped arid regions in Xinjiang and Yunnan provinces have expressed an interest in learning more about the benefits of Jatropha biodiesel.

Having encouraged participation from a wide range of public and private sector organisations, the project has left local communities better equipped to maintain profitable farmland activities. And with some biodiesel factories reaching a daily output of 20 tonnes, the future remains bright for young entrepreneurs like Song and his employees.