That Nigeria, just this year alone, has imported 450,000 tons of palm oil to the tune of N116.3billion, is as grim a reality as it is worrisome.
With an ever increasing population, a steady decline in palm oil production, and a proliferation of the uses of various products from palm oil, it is an economic fact that there is high demand for palm oil in Nigeria. Therefore, it is a tragedy that Africa’s greatest potential is spending so much money on the importation of what it can produce.
It is doubly disgraceful that the country has had to pay a very high price, and in scarce foreign exchange, for that matter, to satisfy this huge demand. The situation becomes more sickening when the historical facts that trail Nigeria’s steady decline in oil palm production are considered.
About 65 years ago when Nigeria was the golden geese of colonial West Africa, it accounted for 40 per cent of the global output of palm oil. And at independence in 1960, being one of its largest producers and exporters, Nigeria controlled 43 per cent of the global market and raked in 82 per cent of its national export revenue from palm oil.
Then came the crude oil boom, and production of palm oil began to plummet while population and consumption increased. The production curve took a dive so much so that by the 1990s, Nigeria’s out-put had plummeted to seven percent. Today, embarrassingly and sadly so, Nigeria only manages to produce about 1.57 per cent which is nowhere near meeting its own consumption needs, hence the massive importation and flight of so much money.
This depressing story of Nigeria’s dance with destiny over palm produce is captured by the official narrative of the nation’s past glory: In the 1970s, some Malaysian officials came to the Nigerian Institute for Oil palm Research (NIFOR), and took away palm fruit seedlings, which they genetically engineered to become high yield species.
The narrative states that the product of vision and persistent pursuit of it over these high yield species plucked from Nigeria is the palm oil, which Nigeria, in total embarrassment and in plain advertisement of the nation’s visionless leadership over time, has now turned around to import in billions of dollars-worth from Malaysia.
Some reasons have been adduced for this miserable economic failure. First is that Nigeria’s economic policy as it concerned palm oil production was dictated by the trade necessities of the west.
Being a purely capitalist economic relationship, there was no nationalistic outlook on the part of the colonialists, since they were concerned with the industrial demands of their home country. Secondly and more importantly, the emergence of petroleum as the new foreign exchange earner drew attention away from agriculture and especially palm oil production beyond domestic consumption.
Thus, a holistic development and futuristic plan for that sub-sector that demanded research, expansion, modernization and requisite new knowledge was neither contemplated by the leaders nor thought through by the nation’s elite in power.
To address this situation and put Nigeria back into its prime place of economic opportunities, Nigerians need to be educated on the value of agriculture, with an emphasis on its role in national development. A massive campaign towards agricultural revolution must be carried out as a matter of urgency. It needs to be spelt out in the most communicable way that Nigeria is where it is today because the country has willfully relinquished its natural mainstay.
In other to facilitate this, there is also need to train and re-train entrepreneurs, agriculturists and extension workers on modern agricultural technologies and up-to-date knowledge in the industry. Urgent steps should be taken to ensure that traditional methods and outdated knowledge and techniques, which were hitherto responsible for the post-colonial low yields, should be unlearned.
As a matter of urgency, the private sector should partner with state governments to embark on revolutionary transformation of palm oil production and creation of allied industries through backward integration.
The idea, as always, is to create a self-sustaining nation and an empowered people, using the resources reposed in their land to solve problems and prosper.