Returning the lost glory of palm oil farming in the Niger Delta

In a quest to change the fortunes of local palm oil farmers in the Niger Delta region, PIND Foundation has trained over 6,000 farmers and facilitated deployment of multimillion naira farming technologies to the region. South-south Regional Editor, SHOLA O’NEIL, and BASSEY ANTHONY report on the foundation’s laudable palm oil intervention.

Nigeria’s demand for palm oil is estimated at about 1.8million tons per annum, a figure which outstrips the current local production capacity of about 970,000 tons. As result, over 800,000 or about 47percent supply deficit is bridged through importation.

Economic experts say Nigeria is expending scarce foreign exchange of about $500m on the importation of the vital commodity that could be produced locally. The development is a stark contrast of the country’s past and fall from its past as that was number one oil palm producer in the 1960s.

It is against this backdrop that the Foundation for Partnership Initiative for Niger Delta (PIND) is receiving rave reviews from palm oil farmers for its intervention in changing the narrative of the palm oil subsector.

The Chevron Limited funded NGO, which has invested heavily in the training of fish, cassava and poultry farmers all over Niger Delta region, has so far trained 6,206 oil palm farmers in the region. It has facilitated the acquisition of thousands of advanced technical tools like Malaysian knives, mechanical adjustable harvesters and Small-Scale processing Equipment (SSPE) for local oil palm farmers in the Niger Delta region.

Why the concentration on the palm oil in the crude oil-rich region? PIND Foundation’s palm oil expert, Nezah Obio-Odu, told Niger Delta Report that 50percent of the about one million (1,000,000) palm oil farmers in Nigeria operates in the nine states of the region.

Mr. Udeme Bassey is one of the lead oil palm farmers in the region. He hails from and farms in Ibesikpo Asutan, an Ibibio area, which is famous for palm oil farming in very fertile Akwa Ibom state. Bassey boasted that PIND’s intervention has opened his eyes and his colleagues’ to the fact that “farming smart is better than having extensive hectares of farmland that yield very little.”

“You know that this is what we have been using in those good old days. You hear of Ibibio Scholarship Union, that was being done through the proceeds of the oil palm.”

That was a long time ago, but today as population grew, the demand for palm oil has increased, and sadly too, the lure of the ‘black gold’ (crude oil) has deflected attention from oil palm farming.

But Bassey believes that the palm oil intervention of PIND foundation is already reversing the trend. He said the state’s oil palm farmers have benefited tremendously from the PIND initiative since 2017 when they were exposed to the foundation.

As a result, he said rather than be overawe by the guest to have vast expanse of oil palm farmland to cultivate thousands of trees to make enough money, he would rather farm in a small, more

Nezah Obio-Odu is PIND’s Market Development Adviser who is saddled with the Palm Oil Value Chain Project.  When our reporter met her at the PIND office in Warri, she was calm and soft spoken. But when she was asked about the oil palm programme, her face lit up and she spoke with much passion and enthusiasm.

She said the foundation’s intervention was because it saw potentials for job creation and lifting more people in the region out of poverty.

”The palm oil sector is made up of over one million (1,000,000) actors, out of which more than 50percent is located in the Niger Delta. That is why PIND Foundation saw it as a sector to go into to support in the economic development.

“You know what we (PIND Foundation) do: we are looking for opportunities to create jobs and increase income for the vulnerable people and for low-income earners.

“As part of the solution to the palm oil supply gap, PIND carried out a value chain analysis of the sector. PIND strategically looked at the whole value chain, and what is involved in the value chain. We have seedling, we have harvesting, we have processing and we have management of the farm.”

The analysis revealed that farmers like Bassey still relied on, not just age-long practices handed down, but on the use of the same seedlings, that are not as productive as new versions, for cultivation.

”The overall problem why there was a gap (between demand and supply) is that the yield that farmers had is low because they don’t have the right knowledge and technology. That is why they don’t have the maximum yield. In a hectare of land, for example, a typical farmer is producing four tons of palm fruits, fresh fruit bunches (FFB). Meanwhile you can get up to 16-25tons in that same hectare of land if you use the right technology.”

“So we started off with best management practices that are how can they take care of the farm better? How can they prune it better? How can they harvest it better? And how to harvest on time too, these small details are very important. How they clear their farms so that when the palm fruits starts falling down they can pick it up, because if the farms are not cleared, when the fruits starts falling down, you will not see them,” she said.

At the time of this report on Tuesday evening, our findings showed that farmers are already adopting the BMP in Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Edo, Imo and Ondo states. In fact, it was learnt that more than 4,000 of the 6,206 trained have adapted the best practice. One of them, an AIC Alaoma in Imo state, told our reporter that he has been very busy spreading the knowledge. “As I am talking to you now, am on my way to Orlu for a demonstration,” he told our reporter on the phone.

The benefiting farmers have also increased their proceeds by as much as 50percent, with yields-per-hectare climbing from the paltry four tons 10 and 12tons.

Speaking to our reporter in his farm, Udeme Bassey said, “This is a one hectare farm which contains 150 stands. You cannot compare what you have on this farm, which operates the best management practice, with a farm that has not been given attention, even if it is three hectares.”

“So the recent studies show that if we continue on the best management practices, applying the fertilizers four times in a year we can do harvesting every eight days.” palm oil processing equipment

“We harvest every two weeks. Initially we could not do that, but because of the training we have been able to have our harvest every two weeks and we see the yield, the FFB increase.”

To further consolidate on the benefits of the BFP, farmers are now coalescing to take advantage of their training and numbers. “In Ibesikpo Asutan, we have a cooperative that is called Oil Palm Plantation Owners MPCS. It is the umbrella body of all the oil palm farmers in Akwa Ibom. We flagged off the first oil palm summit in the state and this was done to create awareness of this new development. This year too we will be doing it,” Bassey added.

But if our findings are anything to go by, it is not only in the area of farming that opportunities have been created. Hundreds of jobs are now being created through the adoption of technologies in oil palm farming.

PIND Foundation is helping the farmers switch to technologies that make farming much easier and less strenuous.

Some of the advancements involved the use of technologies to ease the burden of farmers. Hitherto, climbers who were hired by farmers to harvest fruits from trees – some as high as 25 meters – would abandon them and harvest shorter ones without letting their employers know that they abandoned several trees because of height. As a result, farmers were losing up to fifty percent of their fruits, because those fruits would later fall off and are eaten by rodents.

The solution to that problem, Nezah said, was a special sickle-shaped knife, known as the Malaysian knife. “It is used for very long trees so they can harvest. We also introduced them to the mechanical adjustable harvester, which is also used for harvesting; (now) they don’t need to climb anymore.”

”We don’t go directly to the farmers and give them these machines, we sort out equipment dealers, entrepreneurial-thinking equipment dealers who will be interested in doing this technologies because they are not always found here in Nigeria. So we started working with two organizations and they started bringing the adjustable harvester. Over 354 technologies have been sold in the Niger Delta through PIND’s support.”

The foundation, working with the NIFOR trained local engineers and fabricators from farming clusters in Imo on the manufacture of SSPE, which help farmers extract more oil. This added additional 50percent to 10percent that they were able to achieve using the old system.

However, oil palm farming goes beyond clearing of the bush and harvesting after about five years. Farmer told NDR that one of challenge, apart from finance, was getting the right type of seeds to plant.

Niger Delta Report in an earlier investigation a couple of years ago had learnt that unless the right seedlings are distributed to farmers the country will continue to play second fiddle to more advanced international producers like those in Malaysia.

Our recent findings showed too that most of the oil palm seedlings that distributors claim to be the high-yielding Tenera are actually Dura.

Nezah told our reporter that PIND is working to promote the use of improved seed.  ”We have done promotional activities with Palm Elites, and they were in Nigeria last year. So we are providing the region with good seeds and we are linking farmers with producers.

“Right now we are working with Allissee so that farmers will know what they are planting and be sure that what they are planting is true.”

It was further gathered that the new seeds being promoted will producer quicker than those being used by the older generation of farmers, as they can start producing from three years, against seven of the past.

Beyond helping farmers get the best seed, farm practice and harvest technologies, PIND is also ensuring that the old extraction methods, which give farmers very little reward for their hard works are also being replaced with more efficient technologies.

Nezah noted that the foundation’s investigation revealed that when farmers harvest their bunches, they are only able to extract 10 percent.

“We identified the better technology that could give between 15 and 18. The machines are called the small scale processing equipment, and also the high-capacity mill. These technologies are improved technologies than what they used to use. With these, the farmers now have 60 percent increase income,” she said.

Working with NIFOR, the lead agency for oil palm in Nigeria, PIND has been train fabricators on how to produce and improve the system. Nezah said 114 of such machines have been deployed in the Niger Delta.

Still, for farmers like Bassey, having the right technologies and the best seedlings are good, but the best for them is having access to the fund to make their dreams a reality.

”We do not have the fund in getting these improved seedlings called tenera and the fertilizers are on the high side. We are also calling on the Federal Government as well as the state government and the local government authorities to look into the oil palm sector,” he said.

To address the challenge of finance, efforts are being made by PIND to link farmers to Central Bank of Nigeria Agric SME Scheme, which has a low interest rate of 5percent per annum.

On the bright side, these interventions are already yielding dividends with over 4,100 (60%) of the 6,206 BMP trained farmers now adopt best practices to increase their yields and income.

Similar success stories are being told in the n the area of processing, where processors and millers are gainfully employed and offering services to other processors.


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