In recent years, Zimbabwe has started to promote the growth of crops for biofuels – but what does this mean for food security, asks Progressio development worker Angeline Mujeyi...

Faced by ever-rising fossil fuel prices, Zimbabwe has started to promote jatropha production in order to use its seeds to produce biodiesel. Some argue that fuel-generating crops like jatropha could generate more revenue for the country if done on a large scale. But what are the implications of biofuels on food security among smallholder farmers?

Negative repercussions

Diverting land under food crops to jatropha has some negative repercussions for poor households. Given that the smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe have small plots of arable land, it would not be wise for them to commit these entirely to jatropha production.

One might argue that income from growing and selling jatropha seeds can be used to purchase food. But seed prices of jatropha have been very low at $0.10/ kg, and harvesting the seed is very laborious, as there is no mechanised process and it has to be done by hand.

A better approach

My partner organisation, Environment Africa, has been promoting a different approach. Rather than growing it on land used for food crops, jatropha should be planted as hedges around homes and fields.

These jatropha hedges protect fields where food crops are grown. They keep out animals, and they help prevent soil erosion – particularly in areas of dry, marginal land – so enhancing the capacity of the land to sustainably produce food crops.

Benefiting from the added value

And the jatropha itself can generate some additional cash income. But the best way for the farmers to realise profits is not to sell the seeds for biofuel processing. Instead, farmers can themselves benefit from adding value to the seeds, by processing the seeds to produce products like bath and laundry soap.

In Mudzi, Environment Africa encourages farmers to plant jatropha as hedges, and is training them to use the seeds to make soap, rather than selling the raw seeds to private dealers. With training on product development from the Progress!o development worker together with Environment Africa staff, the farmers are now making branded bath and laundry soap for sale locally. The long term goal is to link these farmers to more lucrative markets locally – such as hotels – and abroad.

Enhancing food security

I believe a country should be careful to resist the potential lure of the use of food crops like maize, soya beans and groundnuts, among others, in biofuel production. This would make food expensive and difficult to access by poor and marginalised communities. A country might end up losing the ability to feed itself, becoming reliant on imports and potentially raising food prices. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, wrote in 2007, converting food crops into fuels would be a “recipe for disaster”.

Instead, crops like jatropha, when grown as hedges without competing for land with food crops, have the potential to uplift livelihoods and contribute to food security through income generation – additional money which can also be used to meet household food needs.

Angeline Mujeyi is a Progressio development worker, working in Zimbabwe with our partner organisation Environment Africa.

Photo: handmade soaps made from jatropha by communities in Mudzi, Zimbabwe.