UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Africa and agroforestry — defined as agriculture that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees — are in Penn State professor Michael Jacobson's blood, and the combination has helped shape his career. In turn, the forest economist has played an important role in launching a tree-based biofuel initiative that has major implications for the continent and its millions of subsistence farmers.
At the heart of the effort are croton trees, which seem to grow everywhere in Kenya. Until recently, local people valued them only for the firewood and shade they provide. The ubiquitous croton nuts that the tall, spindly trees produce went to waste. Even animals didn't seem to bother much with them.
But it turns out that croton nuts — about the size of acorns from oak trees common in much of North America — are the source of an oil that can power generators, water pumps and other internal combustion engines and, with processing, can be used in place of diesel fuel in cars and trucks. This previously overlooked tree could be one answer to Africa's growing demand for cheap, low-carbon energy.