Can Biodiesel Power Haiti?

The Western hemisphere's poorest nation faces the same dire problems with fuel cost that the rest of the world encounters. But for once Haiti may have a head start. Its farmers already work with a native plant called jatropha.
By Eric Kroh | April 15, 2008
Haiti, poorest country in the Western hemisphere, used to be known for its wealth. The Pearl of the Antilles, it was once the richest European colony in the Caribbean. Yet Haiti has seen much strife and instability and its riches have long since vanished.

Once covered with lush woodland, Haiti is today more than 95 percent deforested because of unrelenting demand for firewood as cooking fuel. Only one-quarter of Haiti's energy comes from oil, mostly diesel, all of it imported. Nearly all the rest of the energy consumed in the country is from plant-based wood and charcoal.

It is remarkable, then, that Steve Roberts envisions a thriving biodiesel industry in Haiti. Roberts, along with colleague Joe Foss, is the founder of Haiti Biodiesel, a nonprofit
organization with the mission of improving Haiti's economy.

Roberts and others think the key to a burgeoning biodiesel industry and economic security for Haiti is a common weed that grows throughout the country: jatropha.
"I got involved with biodiesel because some of the people I knew were driving biodiesel [powered] cars," says Roberts, a chemical engineer by training and a businessman who has

done previous work with a faith-based organization in Haiti. In the course of studying biodiesel he came across jatropha "and realized the plant had a lot of natural advantages to Haiti," Roberts adds. "It grows on marginal lands, it's a nonfood crop and it's native to that part of the world."

Doubling Income?
Haiti, a nation of 8.7 million, occupies the western half of an island shared with the Dominican Republic. Roberts and his group are working with the Integral Rural Development Organization, or ODRINO, a humanitarian organization in northwest Haiti. In March, they produced a test batch of what they believe to be the first biodiesel made from jatropha in the country. While the batch was admittedly small, Roberts thinks there is enough demand for biodiesel in Haiti to support a jatropha-based industry that would provide a substantial source of income to the country's poor farmers.

Roberts' vision for Haiti Biodiesel is that it will serve as a center for jatropha education and research. The organization will teach farmers how to grow jatropha, collect the seeds and press the oil themselves in small presses acquired through loans. ODRINO will buy the oil and process it into biodiesel, which will power the country's cars, generators and other equipment.

"We think the economics will work out that a guy can grow an acre or half-acre of jatropha and earn for themselves a significant amount from farming," Roberts says. "God willing, we'll double the income of the farmer."

Natural Fence
Haitian farmers already plant jatropha as a natural fence between rows of crops such as avocados and plantains. Jatropha's leaves and seeds are poisonous and keep foraging animals away. But little research has been done on the plant as a source for biodiesel in the country. The principal challenge for Roberts and others is figuring out how to grow the weed on a commercial scale.

Building an industry from nothing won't be easy, but the political situation in Haiti makes possible what would have been out of reach five years ago. A United Nations mission that began in 2004 has provided some stability to the long-volatile country through the presence of armed peacekeepers headed by Brazil.

In March of 2007, the United States signed an agreement with Brazil to promote biofuels production in Central America and the Caribbean through the sharing of research and the development of industry standards.

Jatropha holds considerable promise as a biomass crop for Haiti and could provide other benefits as well, according to Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture. "It's a good crop for Haiti," says Emmanuel Prophete, an agronomist in the Ministry of Agriculture's seed department.

Land of Small Farms
Since jatropha would have to be harvested by hand, production of the plant would be labor-intensive and create many jobs on an island where more than two-thirds of the population is unemployed. Moreover, jatropha will grow on mountain slopes and dry areas that cannot support food crops. The bush has been planted in other countries to prevent erosion-a chronic problem in Haiti.

One acre of jatropha, the seeds of which are 40 percent oil, could produce about 200 gallons of oil-four times as much oil as an acre of soybeans, notes Prophete. Palm oil has a better yield per acre, but palm trees only grow in rainy climates, whereas jatropha thrives in Haiti's arid soil.

"If we can generate economic activity in Haiti, that would be good for Haiti, especially if production is done by local farmers and farmer groups," Prophete says. "That money, instead of being exported to oil-producing countries, would stay in country."

Others agree that any plans for a biodiesel industry in Haiti would have to incorporate and benefit the country's many subsistence farmers. "Haiti is a land of small farms," says Kathleen Robbins, the director of clean energy at Phoenixville, Pa.,-based Green Microfinance LLC, a company that promotes environmentally sustainable microenterprises around the world.

Participating in the Revolution
Robbins is also the founder of Jatropha Pepinye, a non-profit Haitian business in the community of Terrier Rouge in northeast Haiti that grows and sells jatropha seeds for energy and economic development. "The idea is that the small farmer participates in the revolution and doesn't end up working on a large plantation for a dollar a day," Robbins says.
Robbins' route to jatropha was roundabout. In 2006, she tried to start a program in which Haitians would use small loans to start businesses renting cell phones. But the diesel generators that power cell-phone towers in Haiti often go dry because operators can't afford to buy imported diesel fuel.

Imported fossil fuels constitute about a quarter of Haiti's energy consumption per year, but account for three-quarters of its energy costs, according to the country's Bureau of Mines and Energy. In 2006, Haiti joined the PetroCaribe alliance, which allows nations to buy cheap oil from Venezuela. But this type of assistance is not an ideal long-term solution for Haiti, according to Robbins. Producing biodiesel from jatropha would dramatically reduce the cost of importing oil while at the same time improving the country's energy security, she says.

Capital, Markets Needed
For a biodiesel industry to be successful in Haiti, the country must attract private companies as well as aid from international organizations and development banks, Robbins predicts.

One company already on the ground in Haiti is Jatropha Interbanx SA, a subsidiary of Houston-based Interex Global LLC. Jatropha Interbanx was recently approved for a grant by the United States Trade and Development Agency, an independent foreign-assistance intermediary funded by the U.S. Congress. The grant will allow Jatropha Interbanx to research the commercial feasibility of jatropha-based biodiesel production in Haiti and to establish jatropha-growing cooperatives.

"We expect that there will be a lot of local demand [for biodiesel], inasmuch as all of the petroleum products are imported," says Donald Nicholas, chief executive officer of Interex Global.

The company will create a jatropha center just north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. The center will serve as a model farm and a place to train and educate farmers in how to cultivate jatropha. Within 10 years, the company hopes to establish 10 regional jatropha farms with a total of 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of planned jatropha cultivation, Nicholas says.

Interex Global has also talked with Peoria, Ill.,-based Caterpillar Inc. about testing and developing equipment to run specifically on biodiesel made from jatropha.
Working with farmers individually will be essential for success in Haiti, says Nicholas. "You have to train people how to grow it, what to look for, how to take care of it," he explains. "Then you have to give them a place to sell it."

The best model for growing jatropha for biodiesel in Haiti is one that includes the coordination of many small-farm cooperatives, Nicholas thinks. This method has led to success in Brazil's biofuels industry. Jatropha Interbanx will work with ABPPM, the Brazilian association of jatropha growers, to develop a model that will work for Haiti.

Cross-border violence
If all goes well, Haiti could serve as a bellwether for development of biodiesel industries throughout the Caribbean and Central America. The native plants grow naturally in a "jatropha belt" of countries, Nicholas notes. Any of these could have the potential to support a biodiesel industry.

While each country has its own economic climate and unique set of challenges, investors would certainly be encouraged by the success of a biodiesel industry in Haiti, a country as beset by hardship as any.

"What people are globally looking for from jatropha is that first commercially viable, commercial-scale project," says Carla Tully, an investment officer at the Inter-American Development Bank, a regional lender that funds development in Latin America and the Caribbean "It doesn't matter where it is. What matters is that it works commercially. Other countries that see Haiti do it successfully, other investors are going to look at that and say, 'Wow, maybe we can do that here.'"

An additional benefit of a biodiesel industry in Haiti could be better relations with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The two countries have a history of cross-border violence, but a common interest in biofuels production would be a powerful way to encourage both countries to foster peace, Forman thinks. She has talked to organizations in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic and says her inquiries about biofuels met with a positive response. "Frankly, the whole issue of renewable energy and the environment is an islandwide issue," she says. "You can use this as part of the binational discussions."

Meanwhile, Roberts says Haiti Biodiesel expects to install its first biodiesel facilities in Haiti later this year. It will build a small biodiesel plant, producing a few thousand gallons per year.

Even that small output means much work must be done first, including testing varieties of jatropha in different soil types to see what combination yields the best seeds for oil production.

A key step will be persuading skeptical farmers to cultivate what to them looks like a weed. However, once the farmers have seen for themselves the benefits of growing jatropha, Roberts says, they are quick to get on board.

"The folks that have seen us make biodiesel and have run it in their engines, they're excited as can be," Roberts claims. "That you can take a plant like that and make fuel for their engines, they couldn't quite get that until we showed them how do to it."


Eric Kroh is a Chicago-based journalist who writes and creates multimedia content about biofuels and the environment.
 
 
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