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4. The African oil palm

4.1 The oil palm resource
4.2 Present status of the oil palm resource
4.3 Economic and social importance of oil palm fibres
4.4 Outlook for oil palm fibre products

4.1 The oil palm resource

As its name Elaeis guineensis Jacqu. indicates, the oil palm’s original habitat is in West Africa’s tropical forests. Unlike E. guineensis, its closest relative, the American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera (Kunth.), has never gained economic importance.

The African oilpalm traditionally supplied the rural populations in West Africa with vegetable fat and oil, palm wine and some regionally important non-wood forest products. During the sixteenth century it found its way with the slave trade to Brazil, but was only introduced, as an ornamental plant, to Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century.

During the twentieth century oil palm became an important plantation crop, providing palmoil from its mesocarp, and palm kernel oil from its nuts. In 1999 total oil production reached nearly 19 million tons.

The by-products of palmoil production in the plantation are palm fronds (through pruning) and palm stems after replanting, while at the palmoil mill there are nutshells, empty fruit bunches, pressed mesocarp fibres, and palm oil mill effluents (POME). Palm fronds are used for mulching and the mill by-products are burnt to generate energy for the mill.

Oil palms are grown on a 25-30 year rotation before being removed and replanted. At felling the average palm has reached a height of 12-15 m with a stem diameter at breast height of 45 cm. An average 30-year old oil palm has a stem volume of about 1.6 m3 (Khozirah et al. 1991).

After felling palm stems are mostly shredded on the spot, dried, and either left to decay or burnt. Disposal is a cost and decaying stems often leads to insect infestations, with added expenses.

In the 1980’s Malaysia, which is the world’s largest palmoil producer, started research on oil palm stem utilization. As with other palms, the physical and mechanical properties are distributed very unevenly over the stem. They are far inferior to those of the coconut palm stem. This may be partly due to their relatively young age when felled. Furthermore oil palm stems have a high moisture content (up to 500 percent), and high percentage of parenchymatic tissue, rich in free sugars and starch. Due to these characteristics, oil palm stems are even more prone to fast degradation than coconut palm stems.

4.2 Present status of the oil palm resource

The total world plantation area under oil palm covers about 6 million ha, of which nearly half is in Malaysia, and almost 80 percent in Asia (Table 1). Between 1996 and 1999 the area planted increased by 18 percent.

Table 5. Plantation area of oil palms


(1000 ha)

(1000 ha)


Stem material
(million tons)


2 692

3 3131


1 211


1 350

1 807







Rest Asia




Total Asia

3 818

4 692


1 660









Ivory Coast




Rest Africa




Total Africa













Rest L. America




L. America total





Rest world





5 050

5 982

1 940

Sources: Oil World Annual, 1999
1 Department of Statistics 2000
At felling and with a stocking of 128-165 palms per hectare, some 205-264 m3 (average 235 m3) of palm stem material becomes available for use. The average annual replanting programme in Malaysia alone is about 4 500 ha, with a potential production of about 1.1 million m3 per year of stems.

4.3 Economic and social importance of oil palm fibres

The rapid increase in plantation area in Malaysia, e.g. between 1970 and 1999 from 300 000 ha to 3.3 million ha, indicates the economic importance of this plantation crop and the growing world demand for palmoil.

The site requirements of oil palm and rubber are similar but rubber production is more labour intensive than palmoil production. Many plantation companies in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, have shifted from growing rubber to oil palms due to the demand for vegetable oils, sinking prices for natural rubber and increasing labour costs.

In the main oil palm growing countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, most of the plantation area is owned and managed by large companies. For example, in 1999 in Malaysia, nearly 60 percent of plantations were on private estates, about 30 percent in co-operatively managed schemes, and only 10 percent were owned by smallholders. However, even with the private estates entire villages depend on the plantations, since the companies have often employed families for a generation.

4.4 Outlook for oil palm fibre products

Oil palm by-products such as kernel shells, pressed fibres and empty fruit bunches have established uses in heat generation. In Malaysia an MDF plant based on oil palm fruit bunches is in operation with a daily production capacity of 55 m3. Palm fronds from the plantations are also burnt for heat generation, or used for mulching in the plantations. Palmoil mill effluents may have a future for biogas generation.

The palm stems available at replanting are the largest biomass by-product of palmoil production. In Southeast Asia alone, over 1.6 billion m3 are expected to become available in the years to come. However, their economic utilization is still undetermined. The properties of the oil palm stem make it an unlikely substitute for conventional timber products like sawn timber. In spite of its availability at no raw material costs, costs of transportation, seasoning (high moisture content) and segregation of the stem material, combined with its low recovery rate and low durability, do not favour its economic utilization (Killmann and Woon 1990).

Therefore, particularly in the largest producer country, Malaysia, considerable research has begun on more unconventional uses for oil palm stems. Studies range from cattle food to ammonia plastification, from converting stems into particleboard, cement and gypsum-bonded panels to MDF (Killmann 1993). The latter is the first of the technical processes developed at the laboratory level to be implemented in an industrial scale. An MDF plant based on oil palm stem material is presently being built in Malaysia.

In the long run oil palm stems will find their way into industrial utilization even if just because of the sheer volume of biomass available. However, this will be mainly in the form of fibre-based panels or reconstituted fibre. Considering their poor properties and the fact that 75 percent of the world’s oil palm plantations grow in the two major Asian timber producing countries, where timber from forests is still abundant, it is unlikely that oil palm stem material will become an important substitute for solid timber.

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