• Friday, July 12, 2024
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Cheap funding, improved seedlings can unlock Nigeria’s palm oil potentials – Onyiuke

Cheap funding, improved seedlings can unlock Nigeria’s palm oil potentials – Onyiuke

Joe Onyiuke, national president, Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN) spoke to select senior journalists in Lagos including Iheanyi Nwachukwu, BusinessDay’s Assistant Editor. Onyiuke, a lawyer and entrepreneur whose business empire criss-crosses agriculture, hospitality and law said that Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) has been the Association’s lifeblood. Excerpts

Why should a noodles manufacturer in Nigeria rely on imported crude oil palm when he can source it locally? Also, what is the place of crude palm oil in Nigeria’s revenue generation?

There are two reasons. One, the supply in the country is lower than demand, so there is a big shortfall; a shortfall of over 500,000 metric tons. So, they have to look outside to remain productive.

In essence, we are shipping our employment and our benefits of the economy outside. Take a look at all these disinfectant soaps we see around; a lot of international companies have made a lot of money from Nigeria. This is an industry that would normally have been sourcing locally and producing locally in Nigeria but you can imagine how much money over time that has gone out of this country.

The impact can never be over emphasised because a product that can feed many industries including food industry, cosmetic industry, pharmaceutical industry and even biodiesel, ethanol.

Today, Japan has amassed so much palm kernel shells to build a power plant across Japan. They discovered that palm kernel shell has the same thermal value as coal without any impact on the environment.

If you go to Port Harcourt, our palm kernel shells that were discarded are being shipped out by foreigners. Thank God that our local industries have started to use palm kernel shells to power a lot of their industries.

The oil palm economy can unlock so much potential in this country, more than any other crop. You find palm oil in ice cream and chocolate; many people do not know this. Even in local medicines that you see in the villages, people use the oil to treat people that have seizures.

It is estimated that Nigeria can generate up to $20 billion from oil palm processing. What are the things that can be done now to realise this?

Fund the small, older farmers who are already organised and control 80 percent of the industry. Give them access to cheap funding, access to improved seedlings, fertilizers, and processing equipment.

The government should create access for smallholder farmers to have processing plants so that they can process. A World Bank report states that the reason why African farmers remain poor is their inability to add value to what they produce.

It can also benefit the creative industry and our local tourism industry. There is nothing that is a waste in oil palm, from the leaves to the root. Even when a palm tree is old, it begins to generate a drink, which is called palm wine.

Today we are drinking champagne from Europe. If palm trees were to be in Europe, we would be buying palm wine in bottles, these added values are lost including ethanol that people come from other places to get.

There is so much local capacity that we need to build. And governments must fund Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) adequately for research purposes. And they must satisfy a company to produce seedlings and set up an oil council that would be able to regulate the industry.

We need a long-term loan of between 5 years and 10 years with single digits to help people build this capacity. Once you give them a Certificate of Occupancy (C-of-O), it helps them access funds. Because as a lender, once you know that a particular plantation can be valued, you would be willing to give a loan to the farmer.

Crude oil palm is a long-term investment with very little work. Just need to adopt those best management practices like pruning, clearing, and applying organic manure. It would help create a lot of employment. The government should pay attention to the tree crops like cashew, cocoa, oil palm, and rubber. This is our future.

Read also: Agriculture: Lack of crop science grasp is a problem, says Kelikume

Fund the small, older farmers who are already organised and control 80 percent of the industry. Give them access to cheap funding, access to improved seedlings, fertilizers, and processing equipment

You have a presence in 27 states, would it not be more advantageous if you concentrate your efforts within the belt where this oil palm yields are the highest?

It is not just about my ideas; it is also about people living in those areas who are making a living out of the products. We are already an umbrella for all of them. In the South-South, South East and South West, they are already producing it naturally. In the North Central; Kaduna, Benue, Kogi, these are natural habitats for palm oil. Niger State is a border-line with Kogi, very rich in palm oil, even Taraba.

We have to encourage our citizens in this country because there is so much unemployment. A lot of youths sell their lands to go to Europe and when you see their condition over there, you pity them. The money they spent on buying the tickets, if they were properly advised, would have been used to start up a palm oil plantation.

We have engineers who have no work. If you go to some states, you see the oil palm mills are massive like refineries. If you see what our youths can do with their bare hands, you will marvel. All they need is little help. We can produce all the equipment we need in this country.

We have the hands who are saddled to build these industries. We have the people that can maintain them and distribute their spare parts. From that oil palm, you go to refineries. When you are refining oil palm, you are producing a lot of glycerine ethanol, palm olein and so many byproducts that can feed other industries.

Again, oil palm is a product that has the capacity to generate its own power so the oil mills can generate their own power and even for the villages around it. This is the only crop in the world that has two oils; red oil and palm kernel oil.

That is why, as a country, we need to begin to think properly, put our energy where our mouth is, put our resources, and develop local capacity.

What have your scientists done to improve the seeds/plants?

The gestation period of oil palm is now 3 years, it used to be about 7 years. This means that if you buy a seedling that is 2 years old, you begin to harvest in one year’s time. If you buy a 1year old seedling, you begin to harvest in a maximum of two years.

However, the third year of the life of that sprouted nut, when you begin to harvest, is like when a child is maturing, so it has a very low yield. The fourth year is the main year. So, technically speaking as a farmer, the distance between you and harvesting is 3 years or 2 years.

NIFOR seedlings guarantee you 8 tons per hectare when it begins full yield. Then it can go up to 25 tons. If you are able to adopt the best management practice, you can do up to 30-35 tons per hectare. So, if a farmer has 100 hectares, you are a multi–billionaire. Our farmers have no business with poverty if only we can key into the system and do this business very well.

What relationship do you have with the Edo State Government and what lessons can other states learn?

Edo State governor must be commended, and other state governors must learn from him. But there is still so much to be done to attract investors. There is still a lot of issues relating to insecurity and all that. They have communities who come and hijack people’s plantations. This is unbelievable. I have gone to meet the government agency in charge of this to make an official complaint. The governor, however, is doing his best.

Even the big players like Okomu Oil and Presco still experience these kinds of issues and the issues of multiple taxation. So, the government needs to do more. The most important thing is that the government must pay attention to smallholder farmers who have the key to unlock the potential because we cannot do it without them. They are well organised and they have structure. Imagine what they can produce, Nigeria would be able to overtake Malaysia and Indonesia again because of the number and land size we have.

What is your advice to the incoming Minister of Agriculture with regard to giving particular attention to this sector?

He needs to organise the smallholder farmers, unbundle, and mitigate a lot of risks. Any foreign investor that comes into Nigeria to invest in any part of our agricultural chain that is hurting the local producers is not an investor. The Minister should go to the field and see for himself what the people are going through. He is the minister of Agriculture not the minister of boardrooms.