Nelly Bassily | July 22, 2013
Joseph Tesse calls the oil palm “black gold.” He is an oil palm processor from Maleke village, in western Cameroon’s Littoral Region. Cameroon is the third largest producer of palm oil in Africa, after Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.
Mr. Tesse says, “Every household here has a parcel of land with oil palm trees.” The tree, which is indigenous to West Africa, bears fruit that can be processed to make palm oil, commonly used in cooking.
Pierre Jonathan Ngom is the national coordinator of the Small Holder Oil Palm Development Programme in Cameroon. He says more than 80 per cent of the palm oil produced in the country is exported to Nigeria, the Middle East, and Europe. The focus on export means that Cameroon cannot meet in-country demand for palm oil.
But small-scale farmers are now rising to the challenge by producing palm oil for the domestic market.
Deborah Mokwe farms near Maleke, and is one of 200 independent oil palm farmers in the area. Mrs. Mokwe says, “Oil palms are … resistant to drought and climate change and require little or no fertilizer or chemicals and need less care [than] cocoa and coffee.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Cameroon produces about 200,000 tonnes of crude, or unprocessed, palm oil each year. Commercial plantations account for 140,000 tonnes, and small-scale farmers produce the rest.
Mr. Ngom says, “Supply for local consumption keeps falling, as much of the oil produced is consumed by the processing industries and export markets.” Because domestic supply is falling, locally-produced palm oil has become popular at local markets.
He continues: “The cultivation of oil palm trees is less expensive [than] other cash crops … and oil palm trees give the highest yield of oil [by area] compared to other crops like soy.”
Gladys Njeni is another oil palm farmer. She says the local market for palm oil has become lucrative. She explains, “A litre of palm oil now sells for $1.90 US on local markets, compared to 90 US cents in early 2000.”
Ms. Njeni takes her harvest to Mr. Tesse’s mill, where it is processed into oil. She says, “When I bring one tonne of ripe bunches of fruit [for processing], it produces 200 litres of palm oil.”
The extraction process at Mr. Tesse’s oil press is slow and laborious. He employs nine people to assist him. He says he uses his male employees to conduct the more physical parts of the process. The women select fruits to be processed, and decide how best to market the oil.
The extraction process involves fermenting the fruit and boiling it in large steel drums. Once the oil is extracted, it is diluted, passed through a sieve, and then boiled once more.
Alain Nkonji is an agricultural engineer with the Societé Camerounais du Palm, a company involved in producing palm oil. He dismisses local efforts to produce palm oil, saying, “[It] is not a sustainable way of processing palm oil.” Mr. Nkonji thinks that there is too much waste produced by small-scale producers, who cannot extract the same amount of oil from the fruit as industrial processors. He also feels that the oil is not the same quality.
However, what Mr. Nkonji considers waste is valued by local farmers. One of the by-products of small-scale extraction is “palm press fibre.” Although oil cannot be extracted from it, farmers use this leftover material to fertilize their crops.
Mrs. Njeni says: “In the 1990s, I used chemical fertilizer on my farm because … a 60-kilogram bag of fertilizer was 18 dollars, but today it is 48 dollars, so I use the palm press fibre as manure.”