By Chika Emma Okeke

It is no longer news that until 1960 and into the early 60s, Nigeria was the world’s leading producer of palm oil accounting for nearly 45% of global palm oil production.

Sadly today, Nigeria is currently the world’s 5th largest producer of palm oil with an estimated 1.015 million MT annual production, behind Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Columbia whose annual production is put at an estimated 43 million, 21 million, 3 million and 1.680,000 tonnes respectively.

With the discovery of crude oil in Nigeria, successive Governments abandoned agriculture which had been the mainstream source of revenue for the country for the easy and quick crude oil wealth often referred to as the “petrodollar”. The result of the newfound wealth for Nigeria was the subsequent relegation, neglect, and abandonment of the once thriving and lucrative agricultural sector.

One of the sectors that suffered the most was Nigeria’s palm oil industry which had been Nigeria’s leading agricultural export revenue earner, alongside cocoa, rubber, groundnut and cotton.

Before the discovery of crude oil in 1956 and Nigeria’s independence in 1960, palm oil was the pride of the then Eastern Nigeria where oil palm was predominantly grown. It was also a major tree crop in Western Nigeria. The oil palm plantations were a pleasure to behold and its green scenery depicted nature at its best.

With the newfound oil wealth, successive Governments in Nigeria abandoned the oil palm development plan that had been adopted and implemented to keep Nigeria at its place of pride as the world’s top palm oil-producing country in the world. The government failed in developing new oil palm plantations and also lacked the focus in attracting the private sector to invest in the palm oil sector.

Also, the once vibrant, well-funded and world-class oil palm research institute, West African Institute for Oil Palm Research (WAIFOR) established in 1939, now NIFOR (Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research) saddled with the responsibility of research and development, among which priorities was the development of improved oil palm seedlings became starved of funds, neglected and became comatose.

In the next 50 years that followed until the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, successive Nigerian Governments made no effort in investing in new oil palm plantations or in reviving and providing funding for the Nigerian Institute of Oil Palm Research (NIFOR).

Also until the year 2000, there was no concrete and coherent policy aimed at attracting private sector investment into the local palm oil industry. And in cases where there were policies, as it was the case in the 35% import tariff on imported palm oil (25% development levy, 10% customs duty) there was no honest effort on the side of the Government to see to its implementation.

The result is that today Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy annually spends over $500 million to import over 1 million tonnes of crude palm oil to make up for a deficit in its annual consumption estimated at 2.2 million tonnes.

The more damaging effect of Nigerian Government’s lackluster attention to the palm oil industry is that today imported palm oil smuggling is its peak and threatening to destroy Nigeria’s local palm oil processing industry as well as local oil palm plantation development.

Recently, there has been a renewed effort and commitment by the Federal Government of Nigeria as recently announced by the Central Bank Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele to revive palm oil production in Nigeria and put back Nigeria on a path to regain her lost glory in palm oil production.

If Nigeria can regain its lost glory and pride of place in palm oil production, then the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and indeed successive administrations must take an honest, firm, concerted and focus driven approach, among which the following is key;

(i) Invest in research and development by providing sustained funding for NIFOR

(ii) Invest in the development of improved and hybrid oil palm seedlings

(iii) Provide single digit and low-interest financing to oil palm plantation developers and investors

(iv) Empower the Bank of Industry to lend at single digit interest to palm oil processors to acquire modern palm oil processing equipment

(v) Provide subsidy where necessary to local palm oil processors

(vi) Put an end to imported palm oil smuggling

(vii) Provide an enabling environment to attract investors among which security of lives and property is paramount.

The journey again towards self-sufficiency in palm oil production for Nigeria may be torturous and humungous but we can get there. And now is the best time to start again. As the Chinese proverb said “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”

Chika Okeke is the CEO of Agro News Nigeria, & Co-Founder & Executive Director of Feed Africa Initiative; A UK based NGO, advocating for a new stakeholders’ approach to achieving food security in Africa.