Africas' Golden Palm

Dr Garth Cambray

The African Oil Palm, Elaeis guineensis, grows naturally from Angola to Senegal along the west African coast. Oil yields are highest from within 10 degrees of the equator, although plantations have been successful up to 17 degrees from the equator.

Since ancient times, palm oil has been used by African peoples. In more recent times, increases in levels of personal hygiene in Europe and North America during the early industrial revolution created a demand for natural oils for producing soap. This history is evident today in the name of one of the larger soap manufacturers - Colgate-Palmolive - two natural sources of oil, palm and olive make up the second name. An interesting aside to this is that the by product of the soap industry is glycerine, an important starting block in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine, an explosive which allowed large scale mining to take place.

In pre-fossil oil reliant days, palm oil was a major lubricant, used throughout the mechanical world, from steam trains to steel mills to paddle wheelers. As the wheel turns and fossil fuels become more expensive and are increasingly perceived as environmentally less friendly, the focus is slowly shifting to the use of palm oil as an industrial lubricant. For food grade applications, palm oil and palm oil grease are frequently used to pack bearings in places where even a drop of petrochemical grease getting into a food product would cause danger to the consumer.

The majority of conventional oil crops around the world are annual crops which must be replanted each year. Sunflowers, soybeans, canola, safflower, linseed and sesame are all field crops. The oil palm on the other hand is a perennial tree which produces oil crops within 2.5 years of planting. Cropping in a large estate can be continuous with a year round crop.

The yield of oil per hectare of oil palm is as much as 9 to 10 times that of a yield of soybeans, with 30-40t/ha of fruit not being uncommon. Hence the plant is attracting great interest from those interested in the production of oil for both human and mechanical (fuel) consumption.

The plant produces two types of oil - oil extracted from the palm kernel (seed) and from the fruit. Hence one gets palm kernel oil and palm fruit oil. Both have distinct health benefits, as is further explained in separate articles by South African palm oil experts Dr Johannesen and Dr van Rooyen.

From the perspective of our development as a continent, the oil palm industry has huge potentially positive benefits, as well as equally huge negative impacts. Palm oil production is labour intensive, with plantations having to be manually tended on a daily basis. In the case of Africa this is good as we have lots of people and not much money to buy machines. However, if people are producing oil palm products for export, they don't have time to produce their own food for eating, so the industry needs to be structured in such a way that it is not too exploitative and labourers earn enough to buy a decent diet.

It is a sad fact today that the major producers of African Oil Palm products are not African countries. We hope that informed decision making based on open public discussion of this important topic will mean that in ten years time we can carry a story at  explaining how Africa has either entirely distanced itself from the oil palm industry, or alternatively positioned itself to slowly edge towards being a major global player again.

September 2005