*PALM OIL IMPORT AND NIGERIA’S MISSING TREASURES -by Jide Aluka
Don’t we all sometimes remember our missing treasures and wish we could easily get our hands on them again? People miss their first cars and wish they could somehow retain the same car all their lives. For some others, it’s a shoe or some other clothing accessory. There are others whose hope is to find a missing book. Someone who may have lent out a treasured copy of a book will hope that some day it will be returned. If he bought another one, it won’t have the prints of constant thumbing. It won’t have the notes we make of the thoughts that go through our minds when we read beautiful writings. It won’t have the red or blue ink underlining phrases and snippets which may have spoken to us in special ways at the very time we read the material.
It was recently reported in the newspapers that Nigeria spends five hundred million dollars annually importing palm oil into the country. This is almost two hundred billion naira. This is the cost of bridging the supply gap, as Nigeria is currently producing less than the combined demands for local consumption and for the manufacturing sector. Admittedly, the fact of this is not as clear as it looks. Some conglomerates have been accused of preferring to import from their affiliates in other countries than buy from local producers in some cases. However, this does not diminish the fact that Nigeria currently ranks a distant fifth in the table of global palm oil producers. We have fallen from our position as the foremost palm oil producer and global exporter in the 1950s and 1960s to a situation that we cannot competitively supply the local demand for the produce, leading to the huge import cost.
That Nigeria is not self-sufficient in palm oil production is regrettable, considering that throughout the South East and South South there is available land and very suitable conditions to productively farm and process this produce. We are also battling with high rate of unemployment in the country and foreign exchange pressure on the naira, forced by the disturbing extent of our dependence on importation of goods. Palm oil, like a lot of other products sucking the foreign exchange of the Nigerian economy, is a produce that ordinarily Nigeria should be leading in the production and exportation to other countries. Historically, palm oil cultivation was a mainstay of the economy of what used to be Eastern Region of Nigeria. It was the treasure of the people and attracted massive investments with which the region was funded before the current federalist system and the so called oil boom that has turned out to be a burst for the country. Incidentally, today, Nigerians are clamouring for the return of the regional system of governance which promoted the economic viability of different regions and allowed the regions to survive on their available natural and agricultural resources like palm oil.
The demand for palm oil has continued to grow exponentially from what it was decades ago. This is as demand for crude oil is said to be peaking and may, in a matter of years, become non-essential. With massive population growth, this demand will continue to be fueled by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Other sectors that has continued to swell the demand for this product include the food manufacturing industry and, to an extent, the growing eco-friendly initiatives of the construction sector. Palm oil is described as one product that has no waste. At every stage of its production, the primary product and its by-products can be put to great economic value. Unfortunately, these are the opportunities eluding Nigerians as the federal government admits to such huge import cost of five hundred million dollars. This must obviously feel like an opportunity missed, knowing that it is believed that experts from Malaysia, world leaders in the production of palm oil, sought for help from the Nigeria Institute For Oil-Palm Research (NIFOR) in the 70s.
The losses of today are because Nigeria failed to develop its potentials and we live to rue the decisions of the past. At the inception of the present democratic dispensation, we had the chance to change the trend, and even avoided getting to things point. That did not happen. Instead, some of the assets that should have been revitalized and revamped to close the supply gap are moribund and worse off than they were decades ago. It is also true that the volume that used to be supplied by small holder farmers and households from the South South and South East has also diminished with the disappearance of rural dwelling, a situation exacerbated by the suffocation of the third tier of government.
This leads us to another critical angle of reviving the growth of palm oil production, which is a viable local council in the states. The instability of the grassroots government no doubt has adversely affected lives in the rural areas and reduced the small scale production of palm oil by households who ordinarily would reside in the rural areas to engage in palm oil production with the support of stable local council authorities.
Now that the federal government and the Central Bank have come to the realization of the enormous burden of palm oil importation on the economy, their resolve to change the situation is commendable. That said, the solution needs to be deeply rooted for optimum effect. It must be stated that the channels of effort must be extended beyond the current initiatives expected to be championed by the governors of the South East and South South. Local governments and local farmers should be given a stake so that whatever success achieved in returning the fleeing dollars, would be felt as before in our treasured villages and communities.