If you’ve never visited other people’s farm, you’ll spend the rest of your life believing your father’s farm was the best – goes a Yoruba saying.
Everyday, presents itself with yet another opportunity to learn new things.
Growing up in the village, I naively thought Nigeria was the only place in the world that produces palm oil, even when I read years ago that palm trees grow in other tropical countries around the world, my imagination could not stretch enough to picture similarities and differences in the farming, harvesting and production of palm oil in other people’s land.
I recently learnt that Nigeria in the 1960s produces 43% of the world palm oil while Malaysia around the same time produced less than 10%. Today, Malaysia and Indonesia are the two main exporters of palm oil with Indonesia in the lead. Between both two countries, they produce yearly 90% of the world palm oil, now for us in Nigeria, although we were in the lead in the 1960s, we now produce less than 5%.
How could that be? I guess this is what I am trying to understand.
Farm produce especially palm trees always gets my attention, because once upon a time my livelihood and every one around me heavily depended on it. If mother moans about excessive rain during palm fruit harvesting period, I and siblings wouldn’t be too pleased because Akope (the man that climbs palm tree) would not do their job. Most of our palm oil trees were inherited, some have been bearing fruits for more than 60 years and still standing, some were so old and very dangerous to climb and very thin so they were left idle, occupying the space needlessly, waiting to fall if there were heavy winds. Some of the palm oil trees in my village and surrounding were very tall, as tall at 50 feet and Akope still climb them with rope around the waist and axe to cut off the bunches from the tree. Our Akope do not wear shoes so their feet, over long period of time had developed very think layers of dead skin to grip the bark of the tree. People die yearly from this especially elderly Akope, younger Akope have higher rate of survival but in some cases, could leave people with long life disability. Well, growing up I thought the Akopes were very brave climbing up so high with next to nothing protection gears – not anymore were they brave in my book. My uncle died on the job, climbing a 40 foot tall palm tree with one single rope around his waist, he was 66 years old. Raining season is a happy season as everyone is busy with lot of activities about mostly around palm oil processing.
Palm tree is one of my favourites ‘trees’ in the farm, everything about it is a piece of blessing, hardly any waste. The tree itself when fell, is used to build farm huts both for the structure and for the roof my father had one made like this for maize storage. The leaves when woven together neatly are used for the hut roofs, the leaves stalk when shredded are used to weave baskets, my cousins loved to do this for pocket-money, it is a serious day job for many keen adults.
Palm oil as I learned is the world biggest oil produced and 50% of the world products on supermarket shelves from food, soap to cosmetics contains palm oil. Now, there is minimum waste in palm fruit after the oil is extracted, the residue after water is extracted is locally called ogunso (fire starters, works like cow dung)
Palm kernel seed is what is left after red oil has been extracted, this produces a whole different type of oil known as palm kernel oil – looks pretty much like any vegetable oil. Left overs after kernel oil is extracted is used for animal feeds. Beyond the shore of Nigeria, there were a whole lot of usage for palm oil fruits which I find truly amazing.
My knowledge of palm trees and the processes of palm oil production was by large limited to my little village experience. This all changed a few years ago when I visited Thailand, I was there to wander round with no real expectations other than to enjoy meeting new people and appreciate my world. During my stay, I went to remote villages where tourist don’t usually visit, you get to meet people as they are, this has always appealed to me when a visiting a new place. One day on a motor cycle in the middle of nowhere in the south, I saw a huge heap of palm oil fruits, the scale that I have never seen before at home. I didn’t even know that these guys grow palm trees at all let alone produce palm oil, it was fascinating. The efficiency of the harvesting was amazing, also I noticed that lots of their trees were much shorter than what I am used to. It was such an eye-opening experience.
Beyond Thailand, I wanted to learn more about palm trees and its origin. I saw with my korokoro eyes why we have been less productive, our farms in Osun state for example is owned by individual subsistence farmers so no surprises that my mother and many like her in the country work year round producing palm oil and still live from hand to mouth.
What intrigues me more was the fact that this ‘tree of life’ originated here in our backyard, it was later in the 16th century introduced to South America then 19th century to parts of Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand (3rd largest producer) etc. Farmers in these Southeast Asia countries have been assisted substantially by their government for large-scale production with the exception of Thailand where production is mainly small farm holders, but still better run than ours in Nigeria.
Almost every household in Nigeria eats instant noodles but the company producing them based in Nigeria has to import palm oil from Malaysia and now I learnt many households especially in Lagos buy imported palm oil…heaven help me.
Presently PRESCO is doing great in palm oil industry in Benin which I think is fantastic. The government body National Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) are doing what they do best as well – lots of research and lecture presentations.
I am hoping that my state soon will pick up on this and provide funding for very much needed education for our farmers especially about felling the old trees and replanting. This will take time before profit kicks in but at least future will be bright. I also hope that the government will open up abandoned land so people can cultivate there, currently owners are faceless, but immediately anyone shows interest in doing anything with it, there will be strings of owners showing up making it impossible for anyone to afford.
Now at least I can dream of what palm oil industry can be.