Makueni’s castor beans feeding Italian biofuel firm

Emmaculate Ngei at her castor beans farm in February.

Photo credit: BY PIUS MAUNDU | NATION 

What you need to know:

  • Castor beans are the raw material for jet fuel
  • Its production nosedived over the years due to the vagaries of climate change and lack of a steady market

As a little girl growing up in the 1970s, Phyllis Nduva saw her neighbours make a fortune by growing and selling castor beans.

“We grew up hearing that castor beans are the raw material for jet fuel. Only a handful of farmers took the cash crop seriously,” she would recall decades later.

In her adulthood, the prominent farmer at Mwaani Village in Makueni County and the chairperson of Makueni Fruits Processors Cooperative Society is glad to know that indeed castor beans produce environmentally friendly fuel for powering jets, trucks and heavy machinery.

Ms Nduva is among thousands of smallholder farmers in the country who are involved in an ambitious campaign to reduce global warming through cultivating castor beans, which go into manufacturing fuel.

“We harvest mangoes from October to March and citrus fruits from July to October. Since the harvesting of castor beans falls between March and June, it means we are now harvesting something all year long,” Ms Nduva told Health Nation in an interview.

According to Makueni Agriculture executive Joyce Mutua, at least 25, 000 farmers in the region have embraced castor beans after Italian energy behemoth Eni teamed up with the devolved unit to promote the crop a year ago.

Before that, Lucy Bigham, a fashion designer who runs a vibrant silk clothing enterprise at Wote Town, had been the face of the castor beans campaign in the region. The leaves are the primary feed for the eri silkworms which spawn the expensive fibre. She is credited for the comeback of the crop that was introduced in the area by the colonial administration.

Although its production nosedived over the years due to the vagaries of climate change and lack of a steady market, the head of Kalro Katumani research station in Machakos County, Mr Orondo K’Oloo, says Makueni County still presents suitable environmental conditions for production of castor beans. This is understood to be the main reason Eni picked the county to pilot its renewable energy model hailed as bankable.

Eni Kenya managing director Enrico Tavolini says the Italian energy company has cumulatively enlisted 42, 970 castor beans out growers so far in Baringo, Embu, Kilifi, Kitui, Kwale, Nakuru, Lamu, Taita Taveta, Tana River and Makueni counties as it rolls out an ambitious plan to significantly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide associated with fossil fuels.

“We are working on decarbonisation of our products which will lead us to net zero emissions by 2050. Biofuels will play a key role in this path. We have started vertical integration initiatives with the aim of securing volumes of vegetable oils in a challenging market in terms of prices, growing energy demand and availability of sustainable oils,” Mr Tavolini told Healthy Nation recently in an interview at his Nairobi office.

Known scientifically as Ricinus communis, castor is a drought-resistant oil crop. Castor oil plants thrive in deep, moderately fertile soil which is well-drained. According to Dr K’Oloo, castor needs at least 50 mm of rainfall per crop cycle. In its campaign, Eni helps farmers till their plots, provides them with seeds, and guarantees the purchase of all the produce.

A team of agronomists led by Dr K’Oloo trains farmers on managing the cash crop. A spot-check by Healthy Nation in the castor bean plots around Wote Town showed that a majority of the farmers have intercropped castor with maize, pigeon peas, beans and citrus fruits.

The capsules turn yellowish after five months, signalling their maturity. Since the capsules do not mature at the same time, harvesting continues for weeks. The crop remains productive up to three years. The capsules are dried in the sun for around three days before threshing.

According to scientists at Kalro, an acre of castor seeds can yield up to 500 kilos of beans per year depending on the agronomical practices and the weather conditions. Dr K’Oloo says a plan is afoot to introduce high yielding castor varieties which are billed to yield up to 2,000 kilos of beans per year. After collecting a significant amount of castor beans, farmers deliver them at Eni’s giant vegetable oil processing factory at Kwakathoka area on the fringes of Wote Town. President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the factory during his last days in office. 

“The factory pays promptly for the produce we deliver. A kilo goes for Sh35,” said Emmaculate Ngei, at Kyemole, a sleepy village on the edges of Kwakathoka region. The prominent farmer, extension officer and cleric expects to earn Sh120, 000 from her crop which sits on three acres. She uses the proceeds to support her family.

Eni also squeezes oil from cotton seeds and croton nuts at the Kwakathoka vegetable oil factory. It has struck a deal with Kitui and Makueni cotton ginneries to off take all cotton seeds. However, according to scientists at Kalro, castor beans remain the king of oilseeds.

A castor bean, according to Dr K’Oloo, contains 44-56 percent vegetable oil of desirable properties. Telling from the number of trucks and tankers which make a beeline at the factory every day, the Kwakathoka factory, which has hired 140 workers, is the most vibrant factory in the region which is making significant baby steps towards agro-processing and industrialsation. The county boasts of a sisal factory, a cotton ginnery, a fruits processing factory, a pulses cleaning factory, a milk processing factory and a maize meal factory.

“Once we receive the castor beans from farmers, we weigh them and do quality basic checks. Then we store the seeds in our store awaiting regular release for production. The production process starts with pre-cleaning the beans to rid them of dirt. They are crushed in a mechanical process that separates the oil from the seed cake. The oil is filtered and stored awaiting exportation for the refinery while the seed cake is packed and sold to manufacture animal feed,” says Evans Odhiambo, the deputy plant manager at the Kwakathoka factory.

The factory, according to Mr Odhiambo, is able to produce 15,000 tonnes of vegetable oil per year. This is shipped to Italy where it is refined into bio diesel technically known as hydrotreated vegetable oil and bio jet known as sustainable aviation fuel which are sold in the company’s global market.

Although the two products have the same properties as conventional fuels, experts say they have a relatively smaller carbon footprint. A deal Eni signed with the government of Kenya in 2021 entails converting the Kipevu oil refinery into a bio-fuel refinery. This is expected to stop the shipping of vegetable oil to Italy.

“We are planning to produce 200,000 tonnes of vegetable oil every year from assorted oilseeds by 2026,” said Mr Tavolini.

“Keeping global warming within the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is the greatest challenge of our time, and the future of our planet depends on it. It is a challenge that involves all of us-government, institutions, international agencies, the private sector, citizens — and in particular the energy sector. There is no sustainable economic future without a transition taking into account the security and sustainability of the energy system,” he added.

The company’s investment in clean energy is buoyed by an ambitious resolve by the Kenyan government to reduce the emission of polluting greenhouse gases by 32 per cent by 2030. Eni’s renewable energy model was greeted with praise recently when President William Ruto hosted his Italian counterpart, Sergio Matterella.

In an open endorsement, President Ruto said Kenya is ready to work with organisations that champion green energy as he pledged the support of his administration to Eni.

“We commit to provide Eni with between 250,000 and 300, 000 acres of land in marginal areas for production of biofuels,” he said.