For many years, David Mutwiri, a farmer from Nyariginu village in Laikipia County, considered the three tall brown trees at his farm that periodically shed some small nuts a nuisance.
This is because the ‘useless’ nuts would dirty his compound, thus, he had to collect them to clean his compound.
Today, however, the tree known as Croton megalocarpus, has become Mutwiri’s main source of income, with the farmer having realised its value
“The nuts produce biofuel, fertiliser, animal feeds and even cosmetics,” says Mutwiri. “Having realised their importance, I planted more. I now have over 40 trees,” he adds.
Mutwiri is one of the croton farmers in the county who sells their nuts to EcoFix Kenya, which is run by Cosmas Ochieng
Ochieng, the chief executive of the firm located in Nanyuki, has carved a thriving business out of the nuts that were once considered a waste.
The firm produces pure biofuel from the nuts, which can be used as a direct replacement for diesel fuel in generators, in large stationary diesel engines and in steam boilers, but not in road vehicles, explains Ochieng.
“The advantages of using croton nut oil are many. The oil has self-lubricating properties that makes it better than diesel, it has a flash-point much higher than diesel, a density slightly lighter than diesel and an energy calorific value 10 per cent lower than diesel.”
He adds that it is environmentally-friendly, totally miscible with diesel and can be blended in any ratios.
“Compared to other fuels such as diesel, croton is cheaper and generates far less carbon dioxide emissions. It can also power water pumps and tractor engines.”
Ochieng receives Croton megalocarpus nuts from farmers like Mutwiri. The nuts are then weighed and classified based on the expected product outcome.
“Those with high moisture content are dried using the dryer to a dehullable state. The dry nuts are then dehulled to get seeds and husks. The husks are taken through a composting process to make organic fertilisers and through a carbonisation process to get croton vinegar,” explains Ochieng.
On the other hand, the seeds are crushed to get oil which is used in making cosmetics and as a biofuel that can be processed further to biodiesel.
The seed waste is milled to end up with livestock feed protein supplement.
Ochieng’s firm sells the oil to corporates like Del Monte and Standard Chartered Bank, which use it to power their generators, but 80 per cent of the oil is sold to distributors, some who export it.
A tonne of nuts produces 100 litres of oil. The firm produces 300,000 litres of biofuel annually from 3,000 tonnes of nuts they get from farmers at Sh10 a kilo.
Cost of producing biofuel
The entrepreneur and a business partner started the firm in 2012 with Sh200,000 capital with the sole purpose of using the nuts to create biofuel. However, Ochieng opted to diversify to other products as it became clear that reliance on biofuel would not sustain the long-term business growth.
“Our foundation is based on conservation and climate change where we didn’t want to waste anything from our production chain.”
“The cost of producing biofuel was very high yet nearly 90 per cent of the nut was wasted. Besides, it didn’t make sense to waste anything from our production,” he adds.
The products he makes are branded Ecofuel, Eco fertilisers and Nea by Nature cosmetics.
Initially, he would sell the organic fertiliser to smallholder farmers, but the problem was that it was more expensive than the chemical equivalents and would take longer to take effect as it changes the composition of the soil rather than targeting only the plant.
“Many farmers want to see instant changes and that’s not practical here. I realised I needed money to do marketing and convince farmers. I thus opted to divert my attention from small farmers and target corporates that better understand the benefits of organic fertiliser,” says Ochieng, noting of the 300,000 litres of biofuel they produce, 80 per cent is used as fuel while 20 per cent goes to making cosmetics.
His latest innovation is the cosmetic brand called Nea by Nature, which uses croton oil as a base when making products like soap.
“In our research, we found croton nuts have unique physical elements including high moisturising properties,” says Ochieng who trained as a food scientist.
After university, he worked in natural resource management where he became aware of the croton tree and how it was being cut down by local communities, sometimes due to superstitions. He began investigating the business potential of croton nuts.
From working with farmers in just one county, he now collects croton nuts from 6,000 farmers spread in 21 regions in Mt Kenya, Rift Valley and Eastern. The volume of nuts he collects has increased from an initial 600 tonnes per year to 3,000 tonnes.
“Our business model encourages local farmers to plant and harvest croton nuts to offer them reliable income. Through the trees, we have been able to mitigate climate change effects as we address challenges like poverty,” he says.
Through EcoFix network, Ochieng says farmers have planted more than a million croton trees around the country as close to a million others have been conserved.
This has given farmers like Mutwiri new business opportunities, as he traverses villages collecting bags of croton nuts.
“In a day, I collect between 20-30 bags of croton nuts from farmers, pay them, then take to the factory. In a good season of between 3-4 months, I get up to 10 tonnes of the nuts.”
But according to Ochieng, it hasn’t been all rosy. “There are many challenges that come with innovating a product unknown in the market. From convincing smallholders to keep the trees and explaining to businesses that croton biofuel is an effective source of energy, it has taken customers time to familiarise with croton products.”
The next stage in the business, he says, will include building another factory alongside the original processing plant in Nanyuki.
“I am also hoping to solidify the cosmetics line and begin exporting to markets in the US and UK,” says Ochieng, who employs 40 workers.
Felix Opinya, a livestock specialist from Egerton University, notes that croton seedcake boasts of a highly concentrated source of protein with balanced levels of fat and fibre; that is 25 per cent protein, 10 per cent fat, 27 per cent crude fibre, 10 per cent moisture and 202 Energy (kcal/100g).
This protein content is 39 per cent higher than canola (18 per cent protein) and 25 per cent higher than sunflower (20 per cent). Unlike much of the seedcake produced from other ground nuts, which are highly susceptible to mould growth, croton seedcake ensures the safest quality feed for your poultry.
The seedcake is made as a byproduct of biofuel production, while the croton husks are used as a soil conditioner.