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.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.