The potential of Jatropha to alleviate poverty in rural communities in The Gambia

Why The Gambia?

I arrived in Banjul, The Gambia on June 16th 2009, to collaborate with Concern Universal, a local NGO, with regards to the feasibility of implementing a Jatropha development project with a number of local communities in rural areas of the country. To date, no Jatropha has been cultivated in The Gambia, but there is an increasing interest in the shrub amongst NGOs and the government, owing to the attention it has been given in the international arena and also, closer to home, the investment currently being made in neighbouring Senegal.

Concern Universal has previously worked with Imperial Collegeon research projects investigating the possibilities of harnessing carbon financing from environmental development projects and were keen to continue the partnership. Although I was able to carry out a substantial amount of desk-based research before embarking on my trip, by drawing parallels with similar projects in other countries, there is no substitute to fully understanding local conditions and risks. Therefore whilst outlining the scope of my research with Concern Universal, it was concluded that the fieldwork was imperative to the research proposal.

Why Jatropha?

The Gambia is an extremely poor country, currently 57th on the UN Human Development Index and access to energy is extremely low… Banjularea and only…. In rural areas.

Access to clean, affordable and secure modern energy services is paramount to development and it is increasingly recongnised that almost all the Millennium Development Goals are unattainable without energy provision… However, as in many developing countries, The Gambian government has access to insufficient funds to make the investments required to provide centralized electricity to rural areas. As such many development NGO’s are looking to support the governments work by looking at ways of providing de-centralised energy sources. Jatropha offers an extremely interesting opportunity in the context of rural communities in developing countries, because as well as providing fuel, it has the potential to stimulate agriculture and industry in rural areas, thereby helping to alleviate poverty from in a two-pronged way. Not only….but impressive environmental benefits in a country where deforestation is rife and degraded land is…

How did I spend my days in The Gambia?

This was my home in The Gambia with Concern Universal. I stayed in Fajara, which is right on the coast and about half an hour from Banjul, the capital city. I took three trips in the countryside to stay with rural communities, and whilst I was staying in Fajara I travelled to Banjul to visit government representatives on most days, otherwise I went to the Concern Universal to start writing up my thesis.

This alligator pond is just on the outskirts of Fajara and is a sacred spot for local Gambian people. Although people come here for many different reasons, it is a widely held belief that any woman who is hoping to get pregnant should touch one of the crocodiles to increase fertility.

Better than any Michelin starred restaurant, I was able to buy fresh fish and seafood everyday from the local fisherman who came in every afternoon with the day’s catch. Prawns for breakfast, lunch and dinner then!

The Gambia River

The Gambia is bisected along its whole length by The River Gambia, which is part saline and part fresh water depending on the time of year. All the communities that I visited were on the North Bank, which meant taking the ferry across from one side to the other to travel up-country. In true African style everything was loaded on to the ferry together, including the livestock.

The Jatropha Plant

There is a plant called Jatropha. When the seeds turn brown, they are ready to be harvested. Inside each are three or four small seeds.

These seeds are then crushed and the oil extracted. Once filtered, the oil can be used instead of kerosene to provide lighting or, as a replacement for diesel, to generate power. The remaining seed-cake can be put into a biodigester and the natural gas collected for use. The remaining seedcake can then be applied as a fertiliser. The Jatropha oil can also be used to make soap. Other benefits include use as live-fencing and general environmental benefits such as land reclamation and improving soil stability.

Visiting Farmers

During these visits I interviewed many different farmers and agricultural labourers, carried out extensive surveys and lead discussions and workshops to describe and where possible demonstrate Jatropha’s many benefits.
My key objects in spending time with rural communities was to establish the following:

  • Ascertain what knowledge already existed amongst farmers with regards to Jatropha and its by-products
  • Begin the sensitisation process, in particular with those farmers who already had Jatropha growing on their lan
  • Establish the barriers, challenges and opportunities facing individual farmers and their communities and understand and how to address these through developing a Jatropha initiative
  • Determine the level of interest and ambition that farmers had in learning about the potential of Jatropha and what willingness existed to invest time and funds into growing Jatropha.

Although most farmers in rural villages don’t speak English (local tribal languages are Wolof and Malinka) local organisations that work with Concern Universal were able to arrange translators to help me communicate with locals.

I saw the RAMPress, used to extract the oil from the Jatropha seeds. Bakary Jatta is a farmer who lives in bush and has been growing Jatropha alongside other trees and shrubs for several years. He was able to provide me with invaluable information with regards to the local ecology and agronomy of native flora.

Although there is very little wildlife remaining in The Gambia because of high levels of deforestation, we spotted this little fellow and some of his friends on a walk through Abuko nature reserve.

Last year, Concern Universal sponsored a small trial with a couple of interested farmers in Njwara to see how Jatropha would grow.

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