Have Jatropha investments in Mozambique experienced a similar pattern to those in Indonesia?

By Maja Slingerland

Quote: “Within a decade, the widely promoted ‘miracle crop’ and renewable energy source that proponents claimed would address global concerns regarding climate change, fossil fuel prices and rural poverty proved unsuccessful, leaving failed harvests and abandoned investments.”

The relevance of the question

In Indonesia jatropha clearly experienced a boom-to-bust development. In this article we explore whether investment in jatropha developed in a similar way in Mozambique. This allows us at the level of the research program to extrapolate from potentially specific context-dependent developments of jatropha introduction in Indonesia to more general patterns around the introduction of jatropha.


Data come from action research conducted in Mozambique by several M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, co-supervised by the author, and from analysis of the literature, policy reports and discourses surrounding jatropha, as well as the author’s personal observations from participation in scientific and policy meetings.

Jatropha development over time

During the election campaign in 2004, the government encouraged Mozambican farmers to produce jatropha on all unused, marginal soils, so that Mozambique could become an oil-exporting country instead of being dependent on oil imports. Five ha of jatropha were to be planted in each of Mozambique’s 128 districts. Jatropha seeds were sourced from Malawi and proved to be of poor quality, with low germination rates (1). A lack of knowledge about the growth, development and production of jatropha hampered technical assistance; hence many plants died. The few jatropha seeds produced were unable to be sold due to a lack of organized markets and supply chains.

Yet, in 2007, Minister of Energy Salvador Namburete gave a presentation titled “Mozambique’s experience of biofuels” at the International Conference on Biofuels in Brussels, insisting that the Mozambican government was committed to the promotion of biofuels “with the aim of responding to the national poverty alleviation agenda, as well as providing a response to high, unpredictable and volatile oil prices on the world markets.” According to Namburete biofuels provide an “opportunity to employ our abundant and highly disciplined labour, mainly in production of biofuel raw materials, in particular Jatropha curcas. Biofuels make use of the 41.2 million hectares of marginal land to produce crops like Jatropha curcas, providing our rural population with an opportunity to generate income out of a land that did not produce anything at all.” Clearly jatropha was positioned as a miracle crop.

The promotion of biofuels by the Mozambican government had by that time attracted numerous private investors submitting biofuel proposals. The first biofuel project was approved in October 2007. From 2008 until December 2012, the Center for Agricultural Promotion (CEPAGRI) registered 38 proposals for biofuel projects (Table 1), totaling an area of 454,754 ha (Table 1) of which 407,802 hectares were approved in 2012.

table mozambique

Table 1: Number and area of biofuel investment proposals related to total number of investment proposals from 2008-2012 (2, p. 41).

The majority of investment proposals were concentrated in the center of the country, an area where there is prime agricultural land, adequate infrastructure and higher literacy rates in the population (2, 3, 4). Therefore, for the most part investment did not involve marginal lands.

In May 2009 the government published the National Policy and Strategy for Biofuels, explicitly mentioning jatropha and coconut as the two crops to be cultivated for biodiesel. In September 2009 the Eduardo Mondlane University organized a scientific seminar (Semínario Científico Sobre Biocombustíveis) on biofuels, with the specific aim of underpinning the biofuel policy with scientific work and counterbalancing the so far highly politicized promotion of bioenergy. Jatropha dominated the discussion, with 17 out of 29 contributions to the program focusing on this crop species. For the most part the contributions presented problems with jatropha, such as pests and diseases, and issues around seed provenance and poor germination, highlighting that jatropha was mostly still in the planting phase but also that cultivating jatropha for high yields would not be an easy job. Furthermore, presentations investigated appropriate business models, pointing at potential marketing problems.

Jatropha is not only grown in large plantations, but also promoted by a number of NGOs at family farm and village level. An example is Nhambita village (5), where Envirotrade promoted jatropha. Between February and April 2006 a communal jatropha plot of 1ha planted by the end of 2005, was extended to 4ha.. Between May and July 2006 almost 250 farmers from the area showed an interest in planting jatropha on their land. The initiative generated considerable national attention and in 2008 the Ministry of Energy provided an oil press to Envirotrade on loan. In 2008 the jatropha communal plot suffered great losses after pruning and problems with disease control. In September 2009 an evaluation study was conducted (6,), which revealed that the communal plot had been abandoned and only one farmer was still growing jatropha. The farmers described jatropha as difficult to grow, partly due to their limited knowledge about pruning, and virus and pest management. The oil press was not working due to the low seed supply and there was no seed market as an alternative. The evaluators concluded that it would be unlikely that small-scale farmers would allocate resources to non-edible (toxic) crops of which they had little agronomic knowledge and for which both yields and markets were uncertain.

In 2012 CEPAGRI monitored six large-scale jatropha plantations. They concluded that investors soon realized that worldwide limited technical knowledge was available about the commercial production of jatropha. Hence producers like Moçamgalp, GalpBuzi, Niquel and Sab Mozambique were embarking on a simultaneous process of planting and research, with a view to identifying more productive varieties and better systems of planting and growing the crop. Jatropha investors were unpleasantly surprised by the long period of research required for the identification of commercially productive varieties. It was, and still is, impossible to elaborate credible business plans due to uncertainties about projections of commercial production levels. This has limited the process of attracting new investors and funding for the realization of those projects already underway. Several projects went bankrupt shortly after their initiation phase. Only those projects with links to international companies in the fossil-fuel sector, a sector not affected by the financial crisis (e.g. MoçamGalp, GalpBuzi, Niquel and Sab Mozambique), are demonstrating a strong commitment to the continuation of research into the identification of better seed varieties and their subsequent use on large-scale plantations. In 2012 average seed productivity levels were below 500 kg/ha, hence far from commercial production levels. In 2012 several of these companies (e.g. Niqel and Sab Mozambique) were therefore strategically engaging in the commercial production of food crops – both for their survival and to secure their land titles – while continuing research into jatropha. CEPAGRI concluded that it is not yet the ideal moment for involving outgrowers in the production of jatropha seeds, due to low production levels which are unattractive in comparison to other crops.

The most striking evidence that jatropha investment proposals did not deliver their promises is shown by CEPAGRI (2, p. 38). Between 2008 and 2012 the planting of the proposed area remained very modest, with 8,512 ha instead of 407,802 ha planted, and with only 853 out of the anticipated 148,225 jobs generated by the end of 2012.

In Mozambique, many fossil-fuel reserves (of gas and coal) have been recently found. A compilation of press articles published in the year of 2012 and presented in SPTEC Advisory’s Oil and Gas daily newsletter revealed that coal was the second-largest export earner in Mozambique during the first six months of 2012, amounting to $196.4 million (7). The finding of these huge reserves seriously decreased policy interest in biofuels from 2011 onwards.


In conclusion, in Mozambique jatropha has also experienced a boom-to-bust  development. The boom was mainly due to policy aspirations regarding energy independency and rural development, and investors’ aspirations for quick gains based on low land and labor costs. The bust was due to the poor agronomic performance of jatropha crops, the absence of supply chains, especially marketing channels, and the tailing off of investments due to the economic crisis. All these factors also play an important role in Indonesia. A specific additional factor in Mozambique is that the government interest in biofuels waned because of the recent discoveries of gas and coal.


  1. TechnoServe and ICRAF/IIAM, Jatropha plan (Jatropha Research and Development team, Maputo, Mozambique, 2006).
  2. CEPAGRI, “Promoting sustainable and poverty-reducing investments in biofuel production in Mozambique” (Annual report, Centro de Promoção da Agricultura, Ministério da Agricultura, Mozambique, 2012).
  3. D. Ribeiro, N. Matavel, “Jatropha! A socio-economic pitfall for Mozambique” (Friends of the Earth, Justiça Ambiental and União Nacional de Camponeses, Mozambique, 2009).
  4. M. Schut, M. Slingerland, A. Locke, Biofuel developments in Mozambique. Update and analysis of policy, potential and reality. Energy Policy 38, 5151-5165 (2010).
  5. C. Leeuwis, A. Lerner, A. van Paassen, W. Leonardo, M. Schut, S. Bos, Space for innovation for sustainable community-based biofuel production and use: Lessons learned for policy from Nhambita community, Mozambique. Energy Policy 39, 5116-5128 (2011).
  6. S. Bos, W. Leonardo, A. Lerner, M. L. W. Schut, “Assessing the Potential of Bio-Energy Production in Smallholder Farming Systems: The Case of Nhambita Community“(GTZ-PROBEC and Wageningen University and Research Centre, Maputo, Mozambique, 2010).
  7. SPTEC Advisory, “Mozambique. The emergence of a giant in natural gas”. 2012 country review. January 2013 (www.sptec-advosory.com)
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