Bitter kola farming, going extinct in Nigeria, is now gradually gaining steam owing to increased local consumption and export, both of which have combined to drive the cultivation of the nuts and revival of old trees.
Local consumption of the cash-crop has jumped by over 100 percent after the country recorded its first Covid pandemic outbreak in 2020 as lots of Nigerians turned to the nuts as their immune booster against the virus.
“I started consuming bitter kola in 2020 when the country recorded its first case. I needed to boost my immune system against the virus, and there was lots of talk about bitter kola,” said Kola Hassan, a distributor at a top FMCG firm.
“I realised it is good for the body as it is medicinal, and I haven’t stopped taking it since then. I take at least a nut a day now,” he said.
Similarly, Chidi Ikechukwu, a secondary school teacher, said his mum was buying bitter kola for them all through the pandemic to boost their immune system and since then, he has continued taking it.
“I had a serious cough then and was scared it was Covid. But as soon as I started taking bitter kola, the cough stopped within three days. I saw how effective it was and prompted me to continue consuming it,” he said.
“I also told my friends and several of them are taking bitter kola now. It is highly medicinal,” he noted.
Bitter kola, scientifically called ‘Garcinia Kola’ – is a species of flowering plant in the Clusiaceae family. It is widely known for its medicinal benefits, as the seeds, nuts, and bark are used in treating various ailments.
In Nigeria, it is an important cultural symbol for many ethnic groups. Ceremonial breaking of the kola nut is relevant for making people feel welcome in gatherings and is usually given to guests at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies among others.
The low demand over the years has led to the near collapse of the cash-crop. But the narrative is changing as farmers growing bitter kola are now reaping gains for their hard work owing to the recent demand surge.
“Bitter kola trees were endangered before as people were cutting them down for firewood, but the high demand is changing all that,” Ayopo Somefun, a bitter kola farmer in Ogun State.
“It is now Nigeria just started the cultivation of the bitter kola. I just cultivated 10 hectares and got my seedlings from Burkina Faso as our research institute does not have the seedlings,” he said.
He stated that the improved seedlings take six months at the nursery and four years to commence fruiting.
He explained that the country does not have the volume to meet the current demand but is bridging the supply gap with exports from neighbouring African countries.
“It is hard to find a bitter kola tree in the country less than 30 years old,” he noted.
Moses Obadare, a bitter kola farmer in the Obajare community in Idanre, Ondo State, said the demand for the nuts is growing daily as consumption and export continue to rise.
Obadare stated that farmers who have lost interest in cultivating nuts are now reviving the few old trees on their farmlands and seeking to grow more. “When the demand was low, farmers weren’t interested in bitter kola cultivation,” he said.
“My father did intercropping – cocoa and bitter kola and after his demise, I took over the farmland and started cutting down the bitter kola trees to replace them with cocoa owing to low demand for it then,” he explained.
“But with the recent boom in sales of the nuts, I have started reviving the remaining trees left and am looking for seedlings to plant more.”
Maryam Suwara, a trader of bitter kola at Berger, Lagos, said she noticed the sharp rise in demand during the 2020 Covid pandemic and that it has continued to rise steadily.
I noticed the sharp increase in demand for it during the pandemic as many people were taking it so they wouldn’t catch COVID, she said. “Since then, bitter kola has been selling like hot cake in the market,” Suwara added.
According to her, a paint rubber of the nuts now sells between N37,000 and N40,000 depending on negotiation and how big the nuts are, while a 50kg bag sells between N296,000 and N400,000.
Bitter kola has become a top-notch cash crop in Nigeria and it is eaten and serves as industrial raw materials in the pharmaceuticals and brewery industry.
Nigerian farmers and exporters can tap into the global bitter kola market to earn foreign exchange to improve their livelihood as demand continues to rise.
Currently, it is a highly sought after product in countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several Asian countries. It is exported in different forms – wet, dried or powdered – depending on the specification of the buyer.
Bitter kola’s remarkable level of resilience means that they can be grown in a wide variety of soils. The adaptability of bitter kola trees to harsh climatic conditions and poor soils helped abandoned old trees survive.
It is grown in the South-West, South-South and North Central regions, with Ondo, Niger, Enugu, Osun, Oyo, Imo and Ogun states having the largest production areas.
Nigeria’s bitter kola is usually harvested between April and October, though farmers stock the crop and sell it all year round. It can grow up to between 30 to 60 metres in height.
Currently, there is no production data on the cash-crop, not even from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.
Prospective exporters can enter the business either in a small or big way. It depends on the cash at hand and requirement of the buyers. Small scale exporters can start the business right from their bedroom with just a functional email address. It is neither a perishable good nor is it fragile.
“It has a huge export potential. Several exporters are now tapping the opportunity and seeking to expand their markets,” said Adekunle Gbadebo, a commodity trader.
“The volumes are still low but with time it will increase. I haven’t seen anyone exporting a metric ton. The highest export I have seen is 350 kilograms to Asia. This is because it is relatively new to exporters. People weren’t exporting it before,” he said.
The nut is a wonderful agricultural product with a wide range of applications in natural and orthodox medicine. Bitter kola is also used for brewery purposes and that has been the reason why bitter kola is demanded in small and in large quantities by the international market.
Considerable experimental evidence has been adduced to support its chemical constituents against several ailments in the community, including malaria.
In 1999, researchers in Kinshasa, Congo, attested to why people should consider feeding more on bitter kola to ward off malaria.
Under laboratory conditions, the researchers found that extracts from bark, stem and seed of bitter kola tree inhibit the growth of malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum) by at least 60 percent at a low concentration of 6 mg/ml.