FEATURE23 August 2016

Palm reading

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Features Impact Middle East and Africa

Nigeria’s palm oil production industry reveals a lot about the country’s economy as a whole – not least about the role of women

Nigeria group

Oyo is the most prosperous inland state in Nigeria. It has rolling hills and fertile fields yielding a variety of cash crops, and its infrastructure has been slowly, but steadily, developing for decades.  

On a recent trip to the area for a multi-country ethnography project, we were stopped at the junction of a road and a dirt track, leading to the small group of villages called Ikereku, by a group of heavily armed policemen wanting to check our reasons for travel. 

The surprise came when they asked to talk to us privately, away from our Nigerian team. It transpired that they were afraid we were being kidnapped, as they had never seen a European heading that way of their own volition. 


In eight years of doing research in Africa – and countless projects in Nigeria – I had never ventured that far from one of the main cities. There are many reasons for this: difficulty of access, language, literacy, vocabulary, exposure to media and marketing. But the obvious one has been a lack of interest from global – and many local – brands in a population that might still be living quite close to the subsistence line.  

Nevertheless, here we were with Olushula, in the single room built over the goat pen, overlooking the rest of her family breaking open palm nuts with sharp stones to make palm oil. This was a sign that some things were changing. The people living in this village were clearly moving away from subsistence production and generating enough value to have income to spend on non-essential imported goods.

Later in the day, we got to know more of the village better. In particular, the women – and few men – who produce palm oil artisanally from the jointly owned palm trees of the village. 

Groups of women making palm oil is a far-from-unusual scene in Nigeria; indeed, its production is a major source of income for individual households and for the economy as a whole. Domestic palm oil production in the country totals nearly 900,000 tons, and 80% of this is made by several million smallholders, usually harvesting just a few trees using traditional methods. What we were witnessing was a vital pillar of the Nigerian economic story.


The process is labour intensive; it takes about 48 hours to make 20 litres of palm oil and the women share the oil according to the amount of work each puts in each week. The finished product is sold in 20-litre plastic jerry cans at the weekly market, for around 1,000 nairas (about £4 ). Buyers usually come from Ibadan, where the oil’s value will already have doubled. It will often be pooled to be sold in bulk in Lagos for twice as much again. What this process tells us –on a micro- and a macro-economic scale – is incredibly revealing. 

On a micro-level, the most interesting thing is that palm oil production is run almost entirely by women. Men sometimes do the initial harvesting, which involves climbing trees to cut the fruit down, and young people are sometimes also employed – but it is mostly women who process the product and who often sell it at the local market. This brings a much-needed source of income into the household and gives women a certain amount of economic autonomy. 

At a basic level, this tells us that – even at the poorest level of Nigerian society – people are producing a surplus, so have spending power beyond subsistence. Beyond this, the fact that many Nigerian women have access to their own sources of income – and are the ones who get to decide how this is spent – should be of interest to brands that might otherwise focus only on those who participate in the more formal, male-dominated labour market. 


Palm oil production also paints an interesting picture of Nigeria’s economy as a whole. Because of its reliance on traditional methods over more modern techniques, Nigeria has gone from being the world’s largest single producer of palm oil in the 1960s, to being a net importer of the product, having long since been overtaken in the market by countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.  

This may sound like bad news for Nigeria – and, indeed, much effort has been expended on attempts to stimulate the adoption of more efficient and competitive production techniques, to little tangible effect. But it’s not all negative. At least part of the reason for the rise in importation of palm oil is the increased domestic demand, as Nigerian households become more affluent.  

More money means more demand for palm oil on both a domestic and an industrial level. Specifically, we see this as a sign of the times, as infrastructures in many parts of the world reach a critical point where they can truly connect and empower the vast number of agrarian populations left behind, without the need to go through large-scale private or public structures that would, inevitably, absorb some of the added value. 

Back on the ground, we saw for ourselves how the women we spoke to were spending their money and making choices between the different options presented by both local and global brands. What we witnessed was a high level of brand awareness, even in categories that are still difficult to access. 

Consumers here share the same impressions and preferences when it comes to choosing the best for themselves and their families, and are often willing to compromise on quantity rather than quality.  

Global brands – which enjoy the halo of respectability bestowed by time, widespread acceptance and strong media presence – are preferred to the many new brands vying to close this gap. 

The strongest worry in this market, as in many others, is about dangerous consumable goods made with inappropriate formulations. This is true of local brands, but even more so of Chinese imports. Nigerian consumers’ desire to access better, safer, more efficient products – in packaging that expresses status and premium – is entirely the same as that of consumers everywhere else. 

The context in which these may, or may not, be found is still very different – but this difference is fading more each day.  

Jim Mott is associate director and Sidi Lemine is research director at BAMM