It is almost seven in the morning. Daylight shines through the dissipating fog. Séraphin Hounongbé walks to his palm grove, a pruning harness in one hand and an axe in the other. He says, “This is the moment for harvesting. I will harvest the bunch of nuts from the tree before starting to produce red oil.” Looking sleepy, several women clear the inside of a makeshift shelter where they will collect the bunches of fruit.
Mr. Hounongbé is a 50-year-old farmer with a five-hectare farm surrounded by new varieties of oil palm. He lives in Tanta, just two kilometres away from his farm in the commune of Zè, which is 42 kilometres from Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin.
Mr. Hounongbé grows selected oil palm varieties that were bred by research stations to produce many large clusters of fruit with a lot of pulp, a thin shell, and a big kernel. These are qualities that are ideal for producing palm oil.
Mr. Hounongbé hires many female labourers to help him process the palm nuts into palm oil, which he sells to distributors who transport it to be sold in neighbouring Nigeria.
Producing palm oil is a process with many steps. After harvest, the bunches are collected and distributed amongst the workers. Then it is time for threshing. The women labourers cut into the clusters and remove the fruit from the spikelets surrounding it. The women are paid by how many kilograms of nuts they process.
Then the machines take over. The farm has a cooker with a capacity of 1.2 tonnes that helps to prepare the palm oil. The diesel machine was purchased for 1,100,000 CFA ($1,722 US) to save time and labour. After cooking, the nuts are sterilized and pressed to obtain a reddish liquid mixed with hulls and other debris. Another machine mixes and clarifies the oil, removing debris and water to produce palm oil. This entire process takes a week.
During the harvest season from March to mid-September, the farm harvests about 1,200 kg of palm nuts every day. The farm can produce about 13,000 litres of palm oil a year. Mr. Hounongbé says: “The selling price of a 25-litre can varies between $17 and 21 US. Thanks to this procedure [making palm oil], I can educate my five children. I now live in a proper home and my little family doesn’t need for anything.”
Jean Koudjéga is a farmer who lives in Sékou, 45 kilometres from Cotonou. He has been producing palm oil for the past decade. He says: “I prepare the palm nuts in pots. With the help of my family, I crush them in mortars. We filter the hulls and shells with sieves before cooking the liquid over a wood fire. Even though this takes a long time, we manage to produce palm oil.”
Jacques Allah is an agri-food product specialist. He says: “The selected [new] oil palms are fast-growing and very productive. They differ from local palm trees in terms of palm oil production by about 30 to 38 per cent. Furthermore, the [red] oil that is produced is rich in beta carotene.” The human body turns beta carotene into vitamin A, an important vitamin for growth and development, a good immune system, and good vision.
Mr. Hounongbé hopes to expand his farm activities to include livestock rearing, with cows, sheep, and rabbits. He hopes to feed them cakes made of palm kernels, a by-product of his palm oil production and an important ingredient in animal feed.