World Rainforest Movement

Oil palm in Nigeria: shifting from smallholders and women to mass production

West Africa used to be the centre of the palm oil industry. The export of palm kernels began in 1832 and by 1911 “British” West Africa alone exported 157,000 tonnes of which about 75 percent came from Nigeria. In the 1870s, British administrators took the plant to Malaysia and in 1934 that country surpassed Nigeria as the largest exporter of the product. By 1966, Malaysia and Indonesia had surpassed Africa’s total palm oil production.

In Nigeria, oil palm is indigenous to the coastal plain, having migrated inland as a staple crop. 80% of production comes from several million smallholders spread over an estimated area ranging from 1.65 million hectares to a maximum of 3 million hectares. For millions of Nigerians, oil palm cultivation is part of their way of life –indeed it is part of their culture.

As reported by Chima Uzoma Darlington, an Ngwa man from Abia State of Nigeria, “in Ngwa land and most parts of eastern Nigeria, the palm tree is highly valued. It contributes so much to the rural economy that we call it ‘Osisi na ami ego’ in my dialect, which literally means ‘the tree that produces money’. Apart from the oil, virtually every part of the tree contributes to rural livelihood. From the palm fronds, we get materials for making baskets and brooms. The tree is tapped for palm wine especially in Enugu State; and many young men in the rural areas earn their living as palm fruit harvesters while many women (married and unmarried) trade on the fruits.

In my place of origin, many of our prominent sons today, were trained using proceeds from palm trees. Up till today, many community developmental projects are financed using proceeds from the sale of oil palm fruits. In view of any developmental project, the Head of the Village or Community places a ban on individual harvesting of oil palm fruits for a specified period. When it is time for harvesting, individual members of the village or community are mandated to pay a specified amount of money to qualify them to partake in the harvest, which takes place collectively on an agreed date. This was also how they were able to train some of our prominent sons. Even as at today, indigent rural dwellers still pledge their palm trees to others in order to get money to take care of some needs like sending their children to school.”

As documented in the case of Akwa Ibom State, a southeastern coastal state in Nigeria and one of the areas where oil is produced in large quantities, women play an important role in the production, storage and commercialization of red palm oil, a common ingredient in the cooking of almost every type of dish prepared in Nigeria.

The processing of the fruits into vegetable oil is most commonly carried out by women. It begins with harvesting the ripe fruits which grows in clusters weighing between 20-30 kilos. The women work communally in groups of 2 or 3. The harvested fruits are cut into smaller clusters and sprinkled with water, and then, covered with thick jute bags or banana leaves to aid fermentation and make it easy for the seeds to be picked easily from its spiky stalks.

Two or three days after, the seeds are picked, washed and packed in to iron drums and boiled. Fire kindled from gathered fire-wood is usually prepared a night before and at intervals, rekindled to keep the fire cooking constantly hot. As early as 4 or 5 a.m. the boiled seeds whose fleshy pericarp has become soft and tender are scooped with a small basket or sieve bowl into an earth dug-out mortar, which has been fitted with a metal drum. The boiled seeds are then pounded with a wooden pestle to separate the fleshy pericarp from its hard kernel seeds.

The next stage involves scooping this mixture onto a flat trough or onto the ground which had been covered with banana leaves. The kernel seeds are then separated from the fibrous mash. This is then scooped into a cylindrical hollow press. The wrench is then turned slowly and gradually, as this is being done, the extracted oil from the holes in the press is guided through a duct at the bottom of the press into a large bowl, trough or container. This process is carried out several times until oil is drained from the marshy mixture.

The next stage is carefully draining the oil into containers; in doing so, the women are careful not to allow dirt, fiber or other foreign matter into the oil. The finished product if in large quantity may be further stored in larger metal drums awaiting buyers who come to buy them off these women and transported to other towns. If the oil is not so large in quantity they are then taken to the local market for sale; either way, the Akwa Ibom woman earns her money.

“These palm trees”, informs Chima, “are mostly the ones occurring naturally on their pockets of land and not monoculture plantations. Most parts of the eastern Nigeria bear secondary regrowth forests with the oil palm tree being the dominant tree species.”

In the past, the Nigerian government had tried to implement large-scale oil palm plantations, most of which resulted in complete failures. Such were the cases of the 1960′s Cross River State project and of the European Union-funded “Oil palm belt rural development programme” in the 1990′s. This project included the plantation of 6,750 hectares of oil palm within an area thought to be one of the largest remnants of tropical rainforest in Nigeria and it was implemented by a company called Risonpalm Ltd., partly owned by the government. In spite of local opposition, the project moved forward and EU funding was only discontinued in 1995, seven years after its approval. The plantation was abandoned in 1999 and reactivated in 2003. In 2010, the local governor announced his intention to privatize it.

The World Bank played an important role in the promotion of the oil palm business in Nigeria. According to a recent World Bank document, Nigeria has been “the second largest recipient of World Bank palm oil sector projects, with six projects over the 1975 to 2009 period. One project is still under implementation. Results achieved included the plantation of 42,658 ha of oil palm, as well as road improvement and increased milling capacity.”

The Federal Government appears to be now willing to revitalise oil palm production. In April 2010, the government launched a Common Fund for Commodities “in order to improve the income generating potential of oil palm in West and Central Africa.” The initiative was developed by UNIDO and funding is shared between Nigeria, Cameroon, UNIDO and the private sector.

In line with the above, officials of Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) have recently said that “promotion of private sector participation in oil palm plantation holds the ace in effective revival of the produce business in the country.” Director of NIFOR, Dr Dere Okiy has stated that “the land tenure system in the country” is a “limiting factor against private mass production of palm oil by individuals” and “called on local and state governments to provide land areas to oil palm farmers to encourage mass production of palm oil.”

Everything seems to point at the possible expansion of oil palm plantations in Nigeria -revitalizing old ones and establishing new ones- both aimed at the national and international market. But, as Chima warns, “The establishment of monoculture plantations usually involves the destruction of the existing vegetation, and this will amount to the felling of the naturally occurring oil palm trees on which the people depend for their livelihood.” And he concludes: “Land grabbing from rural people to encourage large scale monoculture oil palm plantations will impoverish them the more and cause hardship.”

Source: “Oil palm in Nigeria”, WRM draft at and comments from Chima, Uzoma Darlington.