The croton megalocarpus tree is a member of the Euphorbiaceae (Spurge) family and is indigenous to eight Eastern and Southern African countries, including Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is a fast growing, dominant upper-canopy tree that grows up to 36 meters (nearly 120 feet) high, reaching maturity after five to seven years with a life cycle of up to 70 years. It is also a drought resistant—surviving in harsh climatic conditions—and it is not eaten by animals.
Croton megalocarpus trees flower twice a year. The flowers produce nuts, which drop to the ground when ripe. The trees are an effective tree for water management. They have deep roots, improving and stabilizing soil through water retention and erosion retardation. As a result, croton megalocarpus trees minimize the loss of valuable topsoil.
As of February 2018, EFK’s harvester network consists of 6,000 subsistence farmers and their households within a 200km radius of the Nanyuki factory (central Kenya). On average, farmers grow on 2.5 acres of land and live on less than $1.25/day. As most farmers already grow croton for fencing and shade, they have an abundant supply on their land. Our team at EFK work with regional coordinators—local representatives that communicate with local farmers and organize pickups or deliveries. Over the past four years, we have collected over 900 tons of crotons from 50 different collection centers in central Kenya.
After the failure of many jatropha projects in Africa, viable local alternatives were sought by the research and international development community. Croton was identified as one of the most viable vegetable oils as a replacement for diesel, especially since croton megalocarpus trees are indigenous to East Africa and grows plentifully without additional irrigation and fertilizer.
CNO is a sustainable alternative to traditional diesel fuel and contains 0% sulphuric content with a low-carbon content. Customer testing and laboratory studies show that CNO is ideal for use in diesel engines that spin at 1,400rpm or less, such as stationary diesel generators, water pumps and tractors. These are commonly found powering rural agribusinesses in East Africa due to lack of reliable grid access. CNO also has better self-lubricating properties, is entirely environmentally friendly and is more affordable as it is locally produced and distributed.
Croton grows plentifully in the wild and is largely a wasted resource. It grows on half of all farms in Kenya, primarily for hedges. Because it grows so easily, it does not require extensive training on how to plant and maintain the tree. It is also a drought resistant, fast-growing tree that survives in harsh climatic conditions and is not browsed by animals.
Unlike most other biofuel feedstocks and other cash crops, croton seeds fall when they are ripe so it is easily collected by hand. Planting additional croton does not require farmers to give up planting subsistence crops or their farms in exchange for croton nor do they need to acquire additional land. They can also store croton nuts up to a year. Croton as a cash crop is not dependent on fluctuating world market prices like tea and coffee are.
Croton as a multi-product approach: Croton as a natural biofuel has been researched and successfully trialed in laboratories all over the world since the 1990’s. EFK is the first company to research and develop products and markets for the high-value, bi-products of croton megalocarpus oil (i.e. fertiliser and animal feed). Since building our first factory location in central Kenya in 2012, EFK has evolved into a multi-product agribusiness with products that meet the growing demands of Kenya’s agriculture and off-grid SME’s.
Croton as an organic-growth approach rather than a big investment play: The biofuel industry, especially in Africa, has been plagued by failures such as Jatropha, which sought to farm non-indigenous plant species on huge tracts of government land. The failure of many well-financed, large-scale biofuel projects of non-indigenous species across Africa and low oil prices globally have made others skittish to put up large tracts of land and financing for new projects.
We at EFK believe that the “big bang” approach to biofuels and growing and scaling agricultural businesses does not work, as seen with Jatropha’s failure in East Africa. Starting with a plentiful volume of indigenous croton, sourcing from small-scale farmers and proving the demand for each of our energy and agricultural products has given us the insight and experience necessary to scale the operation across neighboring countries. Creating demand for croton products locally and guaranteeing purchase from farmers will help us establish this new agricultural commodity in East Africa, incentivising increased planting by farmers and increasing our supply base as we scale.
Throughout our startup phase, our informal harvester network earned an additional $32.50 USD/year by harvesting croton. As we expand, we predict that croton harvesters who collect high volumes of croton have the potential to earn over $400/year. Women and unemployed youth make up 85 percent of our 6,000 croton nut collectors. Through our impact research we have learned that 43 percent of them spend the money they receive from croton on school fees for their children and grandchildren; 24 percent on household items likes food, medicine and clothing; and 32 percent on agricultural inputs like animals feeds and fertilizer.
We’re very intentional about tying our success to the improvement of our environment. For example, to increase our supply base, we are planting 300,000 trees between 2016 and 2022. Croton trees’ new-found economic value promotes reforestation all over East Africa, which improves soil conditions as well as combats climate change. CNO replaces harmful natural fuels and since it’s produced locally and not imported, it saves carbon emissions as well. Organic, locally processed fertilizers means less harmful chemicals in the soil and in our food supply. Locally produced protein source for poultry cuts down on high carbon footprints created by imported alternatives.