Croton nuts: Africa's new biofuel that literally grows on trees

Nuts in Hand

Story highlights

  • Croton nut may be ideal fuel with high oil and protein concentration
  • Leading producers are expanding rapidly
  • Analysts say croton avoid ethical issues of other biofuels

(CNN)The history of biofuel production in Africa is marked with expensive and damaging failures.

The much-hyped jatropha crop saw millions of dollars and vast tracts of land squandered, while the production of palm oil has been widely criticized for association with environmental damage and human rights abuses.
    But there is a new hope for the field. The Croton megalocarpus tree is common throughout much of East and Central Africa, and until now it has been used for little more than firewood.
      The nuts of the tree have been shown to contain high concentrations of oil and protein, and they are now being used to produce a fuel that could serve as a clean alternative to diesel.
      With an abundant supply of croton nuts available at minimal cost, a new industry is emerging with sky-high ambitions.
      The Croton megalocarpus tree is common throughout much of East and Central Africa

      Low-hanging fruit

        In 2012, serial entrepreneur Alan Paul established Eco Fuels Kenya (EFK) to explore the potential of croton, following early research that suggested promise. His company is now the driving the movement to bring croton biofuel to the mainstream.
        The business took a low-key approach at first, in contrast to high-budget flops such as jatropha.
        "(Paul) said we can grow organically by sourcing what is already there from one of the most common trees," says EFK Managing Director Myles Katz. "We can buy nuts from farmers so they get an income and we have a business model that does not require $10 million of funding and a big plantation to get off the ground."
        EFK put out radio ads to attract local entrepreneurs into partnerships, who assembled teams of smallholders to supply the nuts. When suppliers realized their previously useless trees had become an easy and reliable source of income, the network rapidly expanded.
        This has enabled EFK to double production each year, says Katz, up to 1,000 tons of nuts this year from 500 tons in 2015. The company is now in a position to scale up the operation, without having planted a single tree.
        Filtering croton oil

        New products

        Producing croton nut oil is a low-tech, low-energy process compared with traditional fuel manufacturing.
        "It is comparable to any other nut or oil pressing facility," says Katz. "We modify the equipment to work on croton nuts but essentially we are buying machines used with walnuts or macadamia nuts."
        Much of the fuel is sold to local businesses that run generators, such as tourist camps.
        The company has also branched into selling by-products of the nuts, including seedcake from the pressed nut as poultry feed, and organic fertilizer from the shells. This offers insurance at a time investors remain wary of biofuels, says Katz.
        "The 'unknown' (element) is hard for investors," he says. "We are not an oil-only business, and we can stand on different parts of the business at different times."
        Producing fertilizer in EFK's factory in Nanyuki, Central Kenya.