But Jatropha, which grows up to 13 feet high, could do more than fulfill a portion of the nation's energy needs. It could also help reforest a country that has been denuded by rampant clear-cutting.
Where most crops don't grow, Jatropha will.
''There are about [1.5 million acres] of dry and arid land, which is suitable for Jatropha plantations and would create thousands of rural jobs,'' said Reginald Noel, a biofuel pioneer in Haiti, whose car runs on biodiesel. ``We can satisfy our energy needs in this country and divert money to our farmers.''
Johanna Mendelson-Forman agrees. She has been a leading advocate of Jatropha's potential as a fuel source, testifying before the U.S. Congress on its benefits here and in Central America, where the shrub is known as Piñon Blanco. Jatropha, she believes, can literally light up the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
''Even if you were to harvest just what's being used as hedging, you could still get enough of the crop to produce oil for villages,'' she said.
WARY OF COMPETITION
Not everyone is happy about Jatropha's rising caché.
Vodou priestess Immacula Jean grows the shrub next to her mud shack off a rural dirt road in Douret. For $50 to $75, she offers ritual baths using Jatropha to purge evil spirts or provide good luck.
Her services, she said, are in high demand at funerals in which family members believe that the death was the result of a curse. Before the body is laid to rest, a piece of the shrub is cut and placed under the head. As the coffin is lowered into the grave, it is beaten with the shrub to expel the zombie, or evil spirit, and free the loved one's soul.
Of the prospect of Jatropha becoming a major source of biodiesel fuel, Jean said: ``I don't like the competition.''
At least three dozen Jatropha projects have sprouted in Haiti in the past year, including nurseries in Terrier Rouge and Lhomond. In Lhomond, 10,000 seedlings have been distributed to local farmers by Entreprise Exploitation Jatropha, a Haitian-based biofuel venture. But getting investors to bet on Haiti, with its tangled bureaucracy and political paralysis, won't be easy.
''We need the right technology, the right variety,'' said Gael Pressoir, who holds a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics.
In Haiti, just as elsewhere in Latin America, India and Africa, Jatropha comes in a dizzying number of varieties.
Pressoir, who was educated in France and worked in Mexico and at Cornell University in New York state before returning to his native Haiti, is raising funds to build a nonprofit institute that would help determine which varieties grow best in Haiti's climate, which has two rainy seasons a year.
At the same time, he is working alongside Noel to breed a nontoxic Jatropha that would yield between 150 and 200 gallons of biodiesel per acre and -- as an added benefit for farmers -- produce animal feed.
''With 500,000 acres, we could substitute all of Haiti's imported diesel fuel,'' he said.
But getting there means finding the right strain of Jatropha and making it economical to cultivate. And then, regions like Douret, where flicking on a light switch remains a luxury, could enjoy a better quality of life.
''There is a huge potential for that crop,'' Pressoir said. ``Now we need to transform that potential into something real.''