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Rethinking palm oil in Nigeria’s economic diversification

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NIGERIAN economy has been known to be principally driven by oil. That is crude extract from the soil which after refining would produce petro metric spirit (fuel),  diesel, kerosene and other related derivatives from crude.

Nigeria is said to be so rich in the acquisition of this crude oil in her soil and sea shelves but how long this resource is going to last is not known, while certainty remains that whatever has beginning would have an end sometime, someday.

Even when the country is savouring the windfall of nature’s fortune, that came with crude discovery in her land, concerns seem to grow now by critical views on life after the oil reign in the country’s history. The horizon holds no great prospects, as oil proceeds’ investment has not given much light to the thick clouds cascading Nigerian future economic skylines.

Without sounding alarmist or stirring pessimism, the country has disregarded sectors that should compete with oil if not lead in contributions to the growth of the overall economy, if just little attention was given to their development. One of such sectors gradually being lost in time with overdependence on crude is the oil palm produce – a subsector in the agricultural sector and coincidentally another oil in the league of Nigerian oil fields.

In the 1960s0s, palm oil accounted for about 15 to 20 percent   to the country’s external reserves and agricultural GDP uptill 1970s but has dropped to 1.4 percent as at 2018 according to United State’s Department of Agriculture report.. Groundnut, cocoa equally made significant contributions to the country’s GDP. This was when agriculture used to be the mainstay of the economic drivers.

Palm trees were in large numbers in the South-East and South-south. Hence; the prospects of high  palm oil output from the area. Palm wine, palm kernel, broom and wood are parts of what could be made out of palm trees to underscore its economic importance.

However, conservation of this all important cash crop has suffered great neglect in the last two decades. A good number of palm trees that existed twenty five years ago had been cut down and in their places are buildings of different kinds. The ones lucky enough to survive such deforestation onslaught had equally overgrown productive era and merely stand to occupy space either to check erosion or consume soil manure without prospect of palm yield.

Suffice it to say that regeneration of palm trees in the environment had grossly suffered neglect, putting the cash crop on a slow and steady journey to extinction. The consequence is; reduced palm oil produce as trees disappear in the forest and available ones grow old and weak to produce maximally.

It is bafflingly that Malaysia which is said to be the number one exporter of palm oil in the world started their palm programme with palm nuts taken from Nigeria in 1980s. As at then, Nigeria was miles ahead of Malaysia but within a space of a decade, Malaysia overtook Nigeria and now live flamboyantly on what a well packaged programme could offer them, while Nigeria deeps in stunted growth arising from misplaced and misguided adventures.

While global oil palm consumption now hits 73.3 million metric tons from 1.2 million metric tons in 1964, consumption has equally risen to 69.6 million metric tons, from1.2 million metric tons in 1964. Nigeria currently contributes only 1.0 million metric tons to the world total output.. Indonesia accounts for 41.5 million metric tons while Malaysia we gave palmnut produces 39.5 million metric tons, with both countries taking 80.1 percent of the world’s total production between 2016 and 2018.

It is apt to ask, how did the journey get this low with the country and what efforts had Nigeria made to improve or at least sustain achieved growth in the sector over the years? Crude oil has its refineries upgraded and maintained to optimize production. This most times comes at a huge cost to the country but due to the positive prospects envisaged in the investment, federal government does not look back in ensuring that required equipment are put in place with nearly sufficient turn around maintainance scheme.

Such is not the case with oil palm industry and investment, despite the inherent revenue generation potential it prospects too. Not much of research development is carried out such that at this modern age, oil palm processing is done in the most primitive way in majority of the areas in Nigeria, even within high propensity of oil palm production areas..

Today’s world requires innovations compliant with a fast changing world in taste and style. The age long traditional methods of processing oil palms and its derivatives should not be left behind in this techno social dynamics. The palm produce industry in Nigeria ought to have evolved into modern factories employing workers if the country utilises her resources well for optimum benefit.

There ought to have been factories sitted predominantly in rural areas with modern machinery for enhanced productivity. Aside from mechanized oil palm farms, even subsistence oil palm producers should have access to the mechanised facilities. This will open up involvement of all the contributors in the sector and boost production in record time.

Besides, with the factories strategically sitted in the heart of rural and suburban centres, the tendency of opening up communities and leverage on the potentials available in such areas with oil palm programmes brightens.

Unarguably, the unemployment burden on the shoulders of government can get at least marginal lift from the sector as much as communities will get connected with government’s policies in that sector. It will surprise many, the explosion of industries (small and large scale) with composite products tied to oil palm in the chain waiting for exploration.

Government should brace up and challenge relevant agaencies to be alive to their responsibilites. Related ministries, departments and agancies should role their sleeves and engage experts in the run for great  goals. Periodic researches should be conducted while those saddled with implementation of research outcomes should be held to accounts in the event of lull. No gain saying that research without efforts to translate findings into practical applications tilt to mere academic jamboree, misuse of time and resources, which is the least needed in this sector as it currently demands.

Agricultural officers in the chain should do much to connect with the farmers in the chain and ensure regularised interactions with stakeholders in the industry.

Beyond efforts to boost productivity, packaging and branding of products need attention. Nigeria has the potential to turn around her palm oil produce and make it an integral part of her major export produce. To carve a good niche in this venture, her products must conform and compete favourably with her contemporaries at the trade exports arena. The country must be made to command some edges over her competitors at the global market for it to gain dominant status. This can only be achieved through strict compliance with universally acceptable standard.

Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari has made known its intention to go back to agriculture as alternative to crude oil in driving her economy forward. This is a step in the right direction considering the technological advancement in the current global clime that seeks alternative to age long dependence in oil to drive their engines. Electricity powered cars are now being developed to rival the existing petrol powered vehicles. It may seem a fairy tale but sooner than may be envisaged, electric cars will dominate car world to the surprise of doubters that the days of petrol are numbered.

Nigeria will be doing herself good if focus is shifted from the underground oil (crude) to tree based oil. It is apt therefore to expect new palm trees lining the vast bushes of the country’s land mass, even if it is to make hay while the sun is still shinning.

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