Jatropha has been widely regarded as the ‘next-best thing’ for biodiesel production as it is resistant to drought and pests, and produces seeds containing up to about 40% oil.
“Its an exciting investment, and it is really just to better understand the yields that one can attain from the jatropha tree,” Omnia CEO Rod Humpris tells Engineering News of the research project, in Zambia. He adds, “There is a fertiliser spin-off – if jatropha becomes a bigger crop in the Southern African region, we would be well placed to really understand the nutrients required for [it] and then, obviously, there is the fertiliser sales which we would be able to achieve in improving the jatropha economics.”
Omnia will continue to spend the necessary capital on research in this field on an ongoing basis.
The research is being conducted in Zambia for a number of reasons, and largely because it cannot be done in South Africa, as the South African government has declared jatropha an invasive plant.
“The one advantage that Zambia has, being a landlocked country, is that the import parity of fuel into Zambia certainly is more expensive than here in South Africa, and I think the driving force there to establish biofuel production is higher than what it would be in South Africa,” says Humphris.
The ‘golden age for agriculture’ has arrived and will continue into the next decade, states Humphris, and the global shortage of raw materials in the agriculture sector has driven the group’s fertiliser-producing division’s operating profit up 98%, to R311-million for the year ended March 2008.
The improvements in this division have come largely from price increases, and not from volume increases. Omnia feels that the production volumes will remain fairly constant going forward, as there is not much room for increased volumes in the South African market as there is only so much fertiliser needed. Volume growth would benefit export markets, “although that could change overnight if South Africa became more bullish with bio-fuels”, adds Humphris.
“We have seen a complete shift in the agriculture sector over the last 12 months – suddenly the world appreciates agriculture,” Humprhis reiterates. Many of the factors driving the greater demand for raw materials have also taken place quite suddenly, particularly the emergence of biofuels.
Humphris explains that the agricultural landscape has fundamentally changed, and there are a number of reasons for the increasing food prices linked to agriculture. These are the increasing amount of arable land being converted through urbanisation throughout the world; the increasing lack of water, also linked to the fact that more water is being channelled to cities; the resistance to full-scale implementation of genetically modi- fied crops is also viewed as holding back yields from a technical point of view; insufficient research on regionalised crop yields; and the change of diets, particularly in Asia, from staple grains to higher protein.
Drought in Australia, flooding in Burma and snowstorms in China have also signifi- cantly impacted on food production, as has the production of biofuels, particularly in the US. Of course, the exponential increase in the world’s population has also placed strain on farmers to produce more.