By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

What crude oil has been since the 19th century is what palm oil was in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. If you owned it or had influence over any aspect of its production and exportation, you were a king. This product could make kingdoms wage war against each other or attract the deposition of kings. The likes of King Jaja of Opobo and Nana Olomu of Itsekiri had immense wealth from trading in this product. Among other notable palm oil merchants of the era was the Ajimele family, the makers of Ajimele palm oil, in Koko, today’s Delta State. 

Ajimele oil was reputed as the best in its era. Just as Nigeria lost its place as the leading palm oil-producing nation, the brand gradually disappeared, leaving those who knew it with only memories. With only two surviving Ajimeles, who belong to that era of oil-making, a Niger-Delta-based firm, Akogate Group, decided to bring back the delectable product to homes and as well save it from extinction. CEO of Akogate Group, Felix Aganbi, tells the story of the over 200-year-old Ajimele oil. Among other things, he hopes to achieve breakthroughs in the field of medicine with Ajimele oil.

How did you find yourself in palm oil production?

I am the CEO of Akogate Group. We are into renewable energy. We were consulting for Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, on water and water purity. We delved into the production of water. It is called Akogate Water. It is the best in the Niger Delta region. We have won awards from the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, and National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC.

Read Also:Minister tasks stakeholders on repositioning Nigeria as top palm oil exporter

There was a day I was having a conversation with my colleague and someone said a litre of palm oil is more expensive than one litre of petrol. The statement made me think deeply about it. Where I come from, Koko, Warri North Local Government Area of Delta State, was known for oil palm plantation. It was documented in history books that the Malaysians took palm oil seedlings in Nigeria to their country.

Today, Malaysia is a leading palm oil-producing nation in the world. The country lives on the proceeds from oil. In the year 2000, we planted many hectares of palms. But I found out that the palm trees were not the type we had in the 60s. These are genetically modified.

The ones we knew in the past were the local species that take about three or four years to produce seeds. From the old palms in Koko, a family called Ajimele produced the best palm oil of that era. The Ajimele people have been in the business of making palm oil for about two hundred years. Palm oil was the biggest exported product from Africa about 200 years ago. 

Are you a member of this family?

Yes, I am a member of the family.

You said the family has been in business for more than 200 years. Does that mean they were contemporaries with the likes of King Jaja of Opobo, who was a prominent palm oil merchant of that era?

Yes, he came into this environment through Sapele. He came through the River at the time we had the Nana of Koko , Nana of Itsekiri. They were big in the business. They were so rich and healthy. That was why they had so many wives and children. I found out that in Ajimele, the oil was supplied once every market day. And market days were four days apart.

It was so because the oil was the best. It had what no other oil had. In those days, it was for the kings and queens. With this palm, extracting a bottle wasn’t easy. I researched to find out why the oil is so pricey and found out that it has unique recipes. Only the family in Ajimele knows about these recipes. It is like the Arthur Guinness family in Ireland.

There is a divine recipe for products that have survived for over a hundred years. And Ajimele oil is one of these products. It is purely organic. Akogate further did more research on why the brand has stayed this long. In 1975, my brother was beaten by my mother for breaking a bottle of the oil. There is much love for the oil in the Niger Delta, especially among Itsekiri people who are the custodians.

What are the health benefits of Ajimele oil?

It has over 450 classes of Vitamin A. It is the highest that can be found in any oil. It is good for the eyes and skin. The medical benefits of the oil were not known until Akogate went into production. There is a NAFDAC professor of Zoology, Prof Adelusi, who researched it. I wrote to NAFDAC and was referred to him. He did the findings and made his result known. This oil is better than all known brands of oil. I want to let the world know that Akogate is bringing Ajimele oil to people locally and internationally. 

There is a shortage of palm oil in Nigeria. Even Malaysia has placed a ban on the exportation of its palm oil. This is an opportunity for us to take the Ajimele brand globally. It has a zero level of cholesterol. The taste of Ajimele oil is not only in eating but also in the way it looks. It is called the oil that never sleeps. I have sent products to Canada, North Houston and London among others. 

When did you go into commercial production?

We started this year. I convinced three people including myself to invest funds into it. This product has been medically tested and it emerged as a medicinal African product. It is a jealous product that has no rival. In repackaging it, we are not just selling oil to the world, we are selling culture to the world.

When I presented the product to the Olu of Warri, he was amazed. He said his grandfather and father tested it but he hasn’t tasted it. He said because I have brought the dead alive, he would taste. It would interest you to know that only two Ajimeles who were among those that produced the oil in the past are alive. They are in their 70s. We are reviving the brand to save it from extinction. I had to beg them to start teaching the young ones how to make the oil so that we don’t lose this important asset. 

Is it right to say that you are not just producing for commercial purposes but also to preserve an important heritage?

That is what I am doing. Historically, kings and queens were associated with it. It was the knowledge of this that pushed me into saving it from being lost. Currently, we are researching the oil in an old people’s home in London. My sister who works in the place is giving two teaspoons daily to old people. And we would study them for 90 days and see how their body receives it.

If it turns out good, we would encapsulate it just as the Chinese encapsulated bitter leaf. We have acquired about 50 hectares of land in Koko for the palms. These palms take about three years to mature. The Ajimele family didn’t use any other type of palm except the local species. That is why we planted the local species. If we use another type of palm, it will be difficult to get the natural oil that we have. We will have our first harvest in 2025.

In this gestation period, the Ajimele family buys from the local market to produce for us every Saturday. Because the process of production is strenuous, they do it once weekly. We have a factory in Koko. The family in Ajimele produces the oil after which the product is sent to Cannan land, Koko, for packaging. Currently, the market is a target market and not a public market.

I am very sure that with Ajimele, there are going to be a lot of scientific breakthroughs in the field of medicine. I don’t want people to be looking at the price of the product because it is nothing compared to the health benefits.

You talk passionately about Ajimele oil…

I am in love with it. I have sat down to see big men preserving this oil as gold. What I saw when I was growing up gave me the push. Anyone I give this product to calls and prays for me. It is because they understand that I am bringing it back. The product is currently in many major cities in Nigeria. I want to go beyond our fathers who ate it only with yam. I am making a product for all meals.

Nigeria was the biggest palm oil-producing nation but it lost its place in the 60s. Today, the country is the fifth on the list. Will your coming into the trade boost local production by the time you start harvesting from your plantation?

I have said that with this oil, I will promote culture and achieve medical breakthroughs. Currently, experts are carrying out research in the laboratory on the health benefit of the Ajimele oil. Our fall from the ladder of palm oil production is a product of leadership failure.

Palm oil is a major source of foreign exchange but our leaders do not care. They are only concerned about petrodollars. If we revive the palm oil sector, we won’t have issues with foreign exchange. The byproducts of palm oil can be used in making many products. It can even be used in making vehicle brake pads. Leadership failure is the reason the palm oil sector was neglected.

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