It’s shameful Nigeria imports palm oil – Aladewolu

December 10 20:13 2016 Print This Article


In this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE, an oil palm researcher and investor in mechanisation of palm oil production, Charles Aladewolu, discusses some of the challenges facing Nigeria’s oil palm industry.

Most Nigerians involved in palm oil processing are poor people who still use the local methods. What do you think is responsible for this?

Historically, Nigeria was the world leading producer of palm oil at independence but unfortunately, Indonesia and Malaysia have overtaken Nigeria and we now import palm oil. We have about three or four different species of palm oil- the Dura, which is the widely cultivated in Nigeria. Then we have the Deli-Dura which was developed many years ago. The Dura has only nine per cent oil content. The Deli-Dura has 13 per cent oil content but the new one that was developed by the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research is called Tenera and it has 22 per cent oil content. We also have Pisifera, which is not being produced in commercial quantities yet because it is still being investigated. It has a more fleshy outer part than the others. So over the years, everyone has shifted to Tenera but in Nigeria’s local environment, they still depend on the old wild palms. So they still have to climb up to harvest palm fruits. And they still cook and do the processing manually. When it is done manually, you only get 35 per cent of the oil; the rest of it is lost in the fibre. But when it is mechanised, you get between 93 per cent and 95 per cent oil content, so it is a lot advantageous to mechanise the process.

Nigeria used to be the biggest producer of palm oil before being overtaken by Indonesia and Malaysia. What changed over the years?

We neglected agriculture generally and everyone was after money from crude oil. But now, what is happening in the petroleum industry is encouraging people to return to agriculture.

Why is palm oil very expensive now?

There is more demand for it and what we are producing is far lower than what we need. Even if those going back to agriculture plant now, it will still take three to four years before they start fruiting; there is no magic about it. And the demand is increasing. Now if you want to import, it is difficult to get forex to do that. So some of the companies that need palm oil to make margarine and so on now have to source for it locally so that they can buy in naira instead of importing from Malaysia. And also, it is seasonal and we are in off-season now. Maybe between February to July/August (its season), next year, the price will go down. But at this moment, it is scarce. People need it for food and raw materials and there was nothing to store up when it was in season.

But do we have proper storage facilities and programme for palm oil?

If we are producing enough, it does not take much to store. People that have storage tanks now have nothing to put there. As they are producing, buyers are there to buy.

But there is no way you will make good money if what you are getting out is 35 per cent oil content. When you make it fully scientific and machanised, you are able to get more than 90 per cent oil content, then you can make a lot of money. And also, it will be special grade oil which you can sell at premium. The type many of the farmers are producing is not special grade oil. They harvest bunches of palm fruits and keep them somewhere. But when you ferment them, what you get is not special grade oil but technical grade oil. Immediately you cut off the bunch from the tree, the quality starts deteriorating. So the earlier you process it, the better. In so many ways, the farmers are losing by processing manually.

You said Nigeria is still importing palm oil; how did we get to that point as we were at one time the biggest producer?

It is a big shame that we are importing palm oil; it takes the Tenera specie four years to boom, so if we plant today, we have to wait four years before we start harvesting. And by 14 years, we start to get maximum yield from it. And it remains like that until it is 28 years old. By that time, the yield starts going down. But there is a way to do it such that while some are being harvested, some are coming up to take over. Then you start replanting again, so it is like a cycle that continues. Meanwhile, the old species like the Deli-Dura takes eight years before it starts fruiting.

We were exporting palm oil along with cocoa and so on at independence but when we discovered crude oil, we abandoned agriculture. It is now that crude oil is no longer bringing money that people are returning to agriculture. But a lot of plantations had been abandoned. Now, we are producing about 40 per cent of our palm oil requirements, that means about 60 per cent is being imported. I go to Malaysia often, some of the mills there process up to 100 to 150 tons of fruits an hour. So you can imagine the quantity of what is being produced there. Here, we are doing three tons and so on. When I was in Malaysia recently, I was being asked about the situation in Nigeria. They said they heard that many people were returning to oil palm business. They said, if Nigeria stopped importing palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia, what would they do with their palm oil? So in order to make sure that it would still be profitable, they set up 28 research institutes to study palm oil and palm kernel to bring out more things they could do with them, assuming they could no longer export it to Nigeria. And I can tell you that they had already found 42 products that they could make using palm oil as raw materials. Over there, they have zero unemployment rate because there are so many plantations. In fact, it is negative unemployment rate because they cannot fill up all the vacancies they have so they are looking at other neighbouring countries to provide labour. There are so many opportunities there like harvesting, processing and refining. And with oil palm, nothing is wasted. In Malaysia, they are now using chaffs from oil palm to make mattress; I saw it with my own eyes. From research, they found out that it is a lot better than the traditional material used to make foams. So there are so many things you can do with oil palm materials; nothing is wasted.

What can we identify as the other critical challenges facing Nigerians in the oil palm sector?

There is the problem of land acquisition. To acquire land for farming is challenging because all land belongs to the government, so you need to have Certificate of Occupancy and so on. Then you have to pay the villagers around the place to have access to your farm. Also, oil palm doesn’t grow everywhere, it has to be an area where there is a lot of water underground and a lot of sunshine on top so you can get maximum yield. So getting the right land is critical. Second, you need funds. It is a project that takes four years before you start getting income, so you can imagine how difficult it will be for a farmer to take a loan from the bank and be paying 24 per cent on it. So government needs to give special attention to funding people who are in the industry of oil palm development because the interest rate in Nigeria is not encouraging people in the industry. Then of course, getting the machinery required can be a problem if you don’t want to source for it locally.

Then people need the right training to be in the business. Local farmers just start harvesting; meanwhile, there is a lot of science in it. You have to commercialise, mechanise and so on. You can’t be pounding fruits in mortar and expect much from it. It is pure stress, but most of the local farmers and processors don’t know any other way of doing the job. They don’t know that that way, they are losing two-thirds of the oil content in the bunch.

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