There has been notion among Nigerians that Malaysia came to Nigeria some years ago to get seedlings for oil palm which has placed the country as number one oil palm producing country while Nigeria lag behind in ranking. But this assertion was debunked recently by crop scientists when some select journalists, fellows of the Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA,) were in the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR). JIMOH BABATUNDE captured the presentations of Dr. (Mrs.) Christy Okwuagwu, the most senior crop scientist at the institute. Here is an excerpt.
On how Malaysia got its oil palm seeds
Malaysia has overtaken Nigeria in palm oil production. I want you to see the well documented origin of the very original planting materials for oil palm in Malaysia.
The earliest record of palm into Far East Asia was four seedlings planted in a botanical garden in 1848 in java in the Dutch East Indies.
Two of these were from Amsterdam botanical garden, but it is not known how they originated, the other from Bogo or Mauritius in Indian Ocean. The palm that sprang from these four seedlings was all quite similar and they were supposed originally produced from Amsterdam through some African unknown origin.
These four seedlings formed the entire source of the planting materials in Malaysia and that we say the entire population of planting materials in Malaysia have a very narrow genetic base. We don’t normally entirely depend on them for breeding and development. Actually it is necessary they depend on us and subsequent materials to improve their planting materials.
The original materials never came from Africa, never came from Nigeria. They were from Dutch expedition of the early 19th century and because they discovered that the crops had economic advantage in their land they started multiplying these seedlings and raising them as plantation crops. They don’t have natural populations. This is the source of everything in south East Asia.
So, there is no way to assume that Malaysia came to Nigeria and got planting materials and now they have over taken us. They never did. People say this carelessly but they did not. I know you are journalists, this is one of the basic information I want you to debunk in every situation, because we know truly that it is true the Dutch expedition that the Malaysians had these planting materials in the 19th century.
On the birth of NIFOR
Plantation had expanded in South East Asia at that time, but, our people are still depending on the wide groves, so come the turn of the 20th century they found it very necessary to have research stations to develop plantation technology and by 1922 they started going to the wide groves to do genetic selections and by 1939 NIFOR was established, where all the genetic materials will be assembled, evaluated and developed into a plantation crop.
Plantation crop never existed in this country. It was the hope of the colonial masters that plantation crops developed and once the plantation crop develops, the oil palm develops into a plantation crop, and then they can compete with organised south East Asia that already had their own plantation crop development.
This never happened unfortunately, after 1939 we now had research into oil palm with NIFOR as headquarters, we had in Ghana, Freetown, Sierra Leone. These were the three centres where these centres were established. Nigeria remains the oil palm station.
Come 1954 the name was changed to West African oil palm research institute, no longer a research station, but a research institute. A full fledge research institute not just to carry out research on genetic development, but other diverse technology development to support the industry.
We became WIFOR, West African Oil Research Institute, but when the component countries became independent, they took their own research stations to become their national research stations. Ours became Nigerian institute for oil palm research that is what we are today.
This is little background to two information I want to pass across, that one Malaysia never came to Nigeria to collect planting materials and two that NIFOR actually existed because of the threat that Malaysia posed to continuous exploitation of wide groves.
If research has made significant impact in Nigeria
Yes and no. Yes because almost all the technology, the fundamental technologies for oil palm development originated from the research here. All the technologies that support oil palm development came from here.
The early research that was carried in WIFOR and NIFOR has been the root of basic information that support plantation development, so it has been very positive towards us Nigerians or Africa.
African countries are being characterized by instabilities of policies. These instabilities of policies and developments have stunted the growth in plantation developments.
Concerted efforts have not been made over the years as it has been in south-east Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, in developing those crops. The industries in this country have not grown at the rate the research development has grown.
The oil boom became a doom because palm produce became unimportant, relatively unimportant to our total economic well being. We are totally dependent on petroleum. And so efforts to establish plantations and go forward with this crop did not grow.
Over the years the federal government made interventions, but they are inconsistent and irregular that does not sustain developments. We had the DFFIRs in the 80s, in the 90s we had other programs, in the early 21th century, we started with VODEM and now we are coming to ATA.
None of them are linked, a government wakes up and develop his, when the government goes, it dies. Another government comes in with another and the circle continues and so the policies are not carrying the nation along. They are not carrying the nation, it is not coursing development in the industry, and the private people are not mobilized.
The policies do not mobilize the private people who are to develop the industry and the industry is where it is now, we are net importer of vegetable oil. More than 70% of our palm oil still comes from the wide grove. We are still exploiting the wide grove.
Productivity in the wide grove is still very low, small holder productivity very low, very few oil palm estate, very few Nigerians are coming out to put their money where their mouth is. This crop which is native to us, we have not done the goods we should have done with it.
Other countries which have embraced it have seen progress and are really very fortunate. I know that our environment is not the best compared to south east Asia, but we have planting materials which are so good and their yield are very comparable with average yield in south east Asia.
It is to get the industry committed to the development of this crop and I am very glad to see young people coming forward to know what is to be done and you are a mouth piece of the nation, so I am glad you are going to carry this message to our people that they should go into plantation development.
On impact on environment
Oil plant plantation stabilizes the environment, where are talking of development. Ozone depletion, the oil palm is one single plant that cleans the environment.
Malaysia prides itself of the best environment in the world because its environment is totally green. Everywhere is green. It has a beautiful shielding effect against the ozone and I want you to have a clarion call with us that people should please come back to our heritage.
Let the groundnut spring up in the north again, the cocoa boom in the west again while in the mid west and the east let the oil palm thrive again. The goodness of it is that the oil palm has grown beyond the mid west and the east. Nassarawa is a good example.
I was in Nassarawa Eggom LGA sometimes ago and they are doing were doing more than the local governments here in Benin in making sure farmers get oil palm seedlings and for that reason they attracted us to come to them , we established an outreach station for them.
Every year we make sure we satisfy them with the seedlings which the farmers demand very well. In Taraba state, the whole stripe along the Gembu, Mabilla plateau, it is excellent, just like Malaysia.
It has good soil, good rain fall, but people are not planting. We had a plantation in Gembu in the 80s; the yield was as if you were in Calabar.