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African and the western Indian Ocean region

This chapter provides an overview of palm products of the African Mainland, as well as the major island groups of the western Indian Ocean.


The continent of Africa is defined geographically to include, because of close mainland ties, the equatorial Atlantic islands (Malabo, S ao Tomé and Príncipe) as well as Zanzibar and Pemba, part of Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean. Excluded are the northern Atlantic island groups of the Canaries and Cape Verde.

Compared to Asia or Latin America, the palm flora of Africa is relatively poor in species diversity. Only about 50 palm species are native to the continent as defined here. However, from a utilization point of view, the low species diversity is compensated for by extensive populations of several species and a range of palm products that approaches that of Asia or Latin America.

Tuley (1995), in his book on African palms, includes a major section on utilization; it serves as a primary source for the following discussion and to a large extent makes it possible. Other botanical sources are the floras of West Africa (Russell, 1968) and East Africa (Dransfield, 1986).

African palms providing subsistence and commercial products have been separated into two groups on the basis of whether they are under threat or not in the wild (Tables 7-1 and 7-2).

Threatened African Palms

The palms in Table 7-1 are under threat as a result of destructive exploitation by humans and animals for leaves, fruit, wood or rattan; as well as because of deforestation. With the exception of Dypsis pembanus, there is scant field information about the conservation status of these palms. Until its rediscovery in 1995 in Sudan, Medemia argun was feared to be extinct (Gibbons and Spanner, 1996). The genera Oncocalamus and Sclerosperma are both in need of study to clarify the number of valid species and their distributions.

Table 7-1: Threatened African Palms with Reported Uses
Selected Local Names1 Distribution2 Products/Uses
? (rattan) Across Africa from Senegal to Tanzania canes used for furniture, etc.
mpapindi Pemba Island, Zanzibar (endemic) seed for ornamental plantings
Hyphaene reptans doum  Somalia multiple products
caffra (monotypic)
inkomba, Pondoland palm Cape Province, South Africa (endemic) seed for ornamental plantings, edible fruit ?
Livistona carinensis carin  Somalia, Djibouti leaves & stems
Medemia abiadensis,
M. argun
argoon  Sudan, Egypt leaves to weave mats, edible fruit, stem wood ?
? (rattan) equatorial west Africa, Congo Basin canes used for furniture, etc.
Podococcus barteri Nigeria to Gabon canes used for furniture, etc.
Sclerosperma mannii Ghana to Angola canes used for furniture, etc.


1. Dozens of common names exist in the many African languages, but no adequate compilation could be found.
2. Distribution is within the Africa region as defined; some species also occur elsewhere.
3. The ecology and uses of Calamus deeratus, Phoenix reclinata and Raphia farinifera around Lake Victoria is the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Willy Kakuru, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.
4. Formerly Chrysalidocarpus.

Sources: Tuley, 1995; and in addition: Johnson, 1991a; Morakinyo,
1995; Täckholm and Drar, 1973; Wicht, 1969.

Non-threatened African Palms

Although the palms in Table 7-2 generally are not known to be under threat in the wild, that is not necessarily so for all species of the genera Eremospatha, Hyphaene, Laccosperma and Raphia. This factor is elaborated on below. Borassus aethiopum, Elaeis guineensis and Phoenix reclinata, on the other hand, occur in large numbers over wide areas and are the source of many different palm products.

Eremospatha and Laccosperma are both climbing palms and sources of rattan. Morakinyo (1995), in a study of rattans occurring in Nigeria, provides useful information on both palm genera in Nigeria and over their range in Africa. Seven species of Eremospatha have been described, but further study, which is needed, may reduce the number. According to Morakinyo, E. hookeri, E. laurentii, E. macrocarpa and E. wendlandiana are harvested for canes. However, the conservation status of the first two named species is unknown and hence harvest should not be encouraged until such time as it can be determined that it is sustainable. The third and fourth species occur in sufficient numbers such that they are currently not threatened. There are as many as eight, but probably fewer, species of Laccosperma; this genus needs further study. The main rattan species used is L. secundiflorum, which is not threatened; another species L. opacum is also exploited to a limited degree; its conservation status is not known.

The statement is made by Morakinyo (1995) that the taxonomy and ecology of African rattans are poorly known and merit further study.

Table 7-2: Non-threatened African Palms with Reported Uses
Scientific Name Selected Local Names1 Distribution2 Products/Uses
Borassus aethiopum ron, palmyra  African savannas multiple products 
Elaeis guineensis African oil palm humid parts of Africa multiple products
Eremospatha spp. unknown (rattan) Sierra Leone to Gabon; Zaire, Tanzania, Uganda cane split to make rope; chewing stick
Hyphaene spp. doum palm, lala, mokola  arid parts of Africa  multiple products
Laccosperma spp. ? (rattan) Senegal east to Sudan and south to Angola canes used for furniture & basket frames, etc.
Phoenix reclinata Senegal date, wild date African savannas multiple products (see Table 9-24 for nutritional composition of palm wine)
Raphia spp. raffia humid parts of Africa multiple products


1. Dozens of common names exist in the many African languages,
but no adequate compilation could be found.
2. Distribution is within the Africa region as defined; some species
also occur elsewhere.

Sources: Tuley, 1995; Morakinyo, 1995.

The doum palm genus Hyphaene is poorly known in Africa where it chiefly occurs. Its habitat includes arid and semiarid areas and river valleys. Although as many as 26 species have been named in Africa, Dransfield (1986) and Tuley (1995) propose the recognition of six species. The most pragmatic approach to take with respect to doum palms and their products is to promote utilization of local palm populations on a sustainable basis. Doum palms are multipurpose in nature; products include the edible mesocarp of the fruit in most species, leaves for thatch and fiber, wood and palm wine derived from tapping the trunk. This latter practice is the most destructive as the individual trees are killed. The case study presented in Chapter 2 on the use of H. petersiana by local people in Namibia represents a good example of the potential breadth of uses.

Hyphaene products and patterns of utilization are fairly well documented. Täckholm and Drar (1973) provide information from ancient and modern Egypt; Hoebeke (1989) studied the palm and its uses in Kenya (see Table 9-18); Cunningham (1990a,b) investigated palm wine production in southern Africa; Konstant et al. (1995) and Sullivan et al. (1995) looked at Hyphaene utilization and the impact on palm populations in Namibia; and Cunningham and Milton (1987) did a study of basket making from the mokola palm (H. petersiana) in Botswana.

The genus Raphia is better known than Hyphaene, thanks to the research of Otedoh (1982), who recognized 18 African species of this mostly swamp-dwelling palm. Although the taxonomy of the genus has been studied, information about the conservation status of the palms in the wild is very limited. Like Hyphaene, the Raphia palms provide many products. Raphia hookeri and R. palma-pinus are sources of a leaf base fiber used commercially to make stiff brushes. In commerce it is known as African bass or African piassava (Tuley, 1994). Common names in Nigeria for R. hookeri are ovie-ogoro and afiaku. Raphia palms are also excellent sources of leaf stalks for construction purposes, the very large leaves make good roofing material, the fruit mesocarp yields an edible oil and in many of the species the inflorescence is tapped for palm wine.

The ron palm (Borassus aethiopum) and the Senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata) both occur in large numbers in the African savannas and represent important local sources of subsistence products. The ron palm produces a single stem whereas the Senegal date is a suckering species and forms thickets of many stems. A study by Sambou et al. (1992) on Borassus in Senegal gave the uses listed in Table 7.3.

Table 7.3: Borassus aethiopum Uses in Senegal
1. Uses based on structural properties
stem: timber, boards
leaves: roofs, baskets, mats, rugs, furniture
petiole: fences, fiber 
2. Uses based on nutritional and medicinal properties
food: endosperm, tuber (cotyledonary haustorium), palm heart, mesocarp sap (wine) tapped from stem
medicinal: roots, male rachillae, stamens, mesocarp, seedling (hypocotyl) sap (wine tapped from stem

Source: Sambou et al. (1992)

Sambou et al. (1992) point out that in countries such as Senegal, Borassus aethiopum is "a victim of its own high utilitarian value;" overexploitation is a serious threat and natural populations are being reduced by drought and agriculture. They argue that strict management practices be adopted and enforced to sustain the palm populations for the benefit of local people.

Phoenix reclinata has similar but slightly more limited uses than the ron palm. The fruit is edible but smaller and inferior to the domesticated date. Both the inflorescence and stem are tapped for palm wine, and the leaves, petioles and trunk have various uses. Because of its suckering growth habit, the Senegal date palm is under little threat due to exploitation for its products.

The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), as both its common name and specific epithet imply, is native to West Africa and the Congo Basin. Although it has been the object in the 20th century of one of the most successful crop improvement efforts of any cultivated palm, extensive stands of wild or semiwild African oil palms continue to exist throughout its native range. Mesocarp and endosperm oil are major subsistence products, but the palm inflorescences are tapped for palm wine, leaves are employed in thatching and to make baskets and mats and the petioles and wood serve as construction materials. Under these conditions, the African oil palm is a classic multipurpose species, unlike the plantation counterpart which is focused only on palm oil and palm kernel oil. In recent years, interest has broadened to more efficient use of Elaeis guineensis as a multipurpose subsistence tree in its native area. Beye and Eychenne (1991) published an excellent study of the African oil palm which exemplifies its "tree of life" status in the Casamance of Senegal, an approach worthy of consideration elsewhere in Africa.

Palm utilization is detailed in the humid forest zone of West Africa by Falconer and Koppell (1990). Three references abstracted in the foregoing source merit mention here. Blanc-Pamard (1980) studied utilization patterns of, Borassus aethiopum, Elaeis guineensis and Phoenix reclinata among the Baoulé people in Ivory Coast; Coleman (1983) did a sociological study of the rattan enterprises in the Bassam area of Ivory Coast; and Shiembo (1986) researched minor forest products in Cameroon, which included Raphia spp. and three species of rattan.

A few introduced, naturalized or domesticated economic palms figure in the forest products of Africa. Coconuts are grown commercially from Senegal to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, and from Somalia to Mozambique in East Africa (Kullaya, 1994). The nipa palm (Nypafruticans) was introduced early in this century and has become naturalized in coastal Nigeria and Cameroon. It represents an underutilized palm resource, compared to the numerous uses it has in its native areas in Asia. Finally, mention needs to be made of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which is an important oasis species and fruit crop in the countries of North Africa.

Figure 7-1. Raffia palm (Raphia farinifera) cultivated in a botanic garden.
Photograph by Dennis Johnson.

Figure 7-2. Doum palm (Hyphaene sp.) as an ornamental tree in Burkina Faso.
Photograph by Dennis Johnson

Figure 7-3. Subspontaneous African oil palm stand (Elaeis guineensis). Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.
Photograph by Dennis Johnson.

Figure 7-4. African fan palms (Borassus aethiopum) in a village in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.
Photograph by Dennis Johnson.


This large island off the east coast of Africa has the most remarkable palm flora of anywhere in the world. Dransfield and Beentje (1995) describe as native 167 species in 13 genera; only two of these species are also found in mainland Africa, giving Madagascar a palm species endemism rate of 99 percent.

In addition to its prominence as the homeland of so many endemic palm species, Madagascar has the dubious distinction of being an area of extremely high deforestation and environmental degradation. Because of their uniqueness, certain Madagascar palms also are overexploited for seed and small plants are dug from the wild for the nursery trade. As a result of the combination of these factors, nearly all of the native palms are threatened with extinction or severe reductions in wild populations.

Information about the full array and magnitude of products derived from native palms is incomplete. Reported uses of palms are included in Dransfield and Beentje (1995), if this information is available, but in many instances it is unknown.

In Madagascar, promoting the development of forest products derived from wild palm populations must be approached with great caution. On the basis of incomplete ethnobotanical data, about 60 palm species are used in some way by local people.

Threatened Madagascar Palms

Table 7-4 gives the names of 48 utilized palms which are known to be under threat. Local palm names given in Tables 7-4 and 7-5 must be used carefully because they are often misleading. The same name may be applied to more than one described species or the same described species may have several common names over its geographic range. Making a link between a local name and a scientific name should always be verified with additional information.

Table 7-4: Threatened Madagascar Palms with Reported Uses
Scientific Name  Selected Local Names 
Beecariophoenix madagascariensis (monotypic) manarano, manara, maroala, sikomba  Mantady & SW Madagascar  stem wood for house construction


dimaka, marandravina, befelatanana  Western Madagascar  edible palm heart
Dypsis ampasindavae lavaboka  Nosy Be and Manongarivo Mts.  edible palm heart
Dypsis andrianatonga tsiriki andrianatonga  Manongarivo & Marojejy Massif  stem wood for house walls; leaf decoction as medicine
Dypsis ankaizinensis laboka, hovatra, 


Mt. Tsaratanana  edible palm heart
Dypsis basilonga madiovozona  Vatovavy  edible palm heart
Dypsis canaliculata lopaka, monimony  Manonogarivo area & Ampasimanolotra  edible palm heart ?
Dypsis ceracea lafaza  Marojejy & Betampona areas  leaves for thatching & brooms
Dypsis confusa tsikara, tsimikara  Masoala, Mananara & Betampona  stems to make blow-pipes
Dypsis crinita vonitra  NW & NE Madagascar  leaves for thatching; leaf base fiber to make oil filter; heartwood used in medicine
Dypsis decaryi  laafa  S Madagascar leaves for thatching; edible fruit
Dypsis decipiens betefaka, manambe, sihara leibe  Central Madagascar, between Anazobe & Fianarantsoa  edible palm heart; leaves used in erosion control
Dypsis hiarakae sinkiara, tsirika  Manongarivo, Masoala & Mananara Avaratra  stems to make blow-pipes
Dypsis hovomantsina hovornantsina Maroantsetra & Mananara edible palm heart
Dypsis ligulata   NW Madagascar edible palm heart
Dypsis madagascariensis hirihiry, kizohazo, farihazo, madiovozona, kindro NW & W Madagascar stem wood for floor boards; edible palm heart: edible fruit

Scientific Names Selected Local Names Distribution Product/Uses
Dypsis mahia   Manombo  stems used to make blow-pipes
Dypsis malcomberi rahosy,vakaka  Andohahela  stem wood for house walls; edible palm heart
Dypsis mananjarensis laafa, lakatra, ovodaafa  East coast between Vatomandry & Tolanaro  stem wood for house planks; edible palm heart: leaf fiber
Dypsis nauseosa rahoma, mangidibe, laafa  Fianarantsoa  stem wood for roofing beams & floor planks
Dypsis nossibensis   NW Madagascar, Lokobe forest  stem wood for construction
Dypsis oreophila kindro, lafaza, fitsiriky  Tsaratanana, Marojejy, near Maroantsetra & Mandritsara  edible palm heart; stem to make blow-pipes
Dypsis perrieri besofina, menamosona, kase Marojejy, Masoala & Mananara Avaratra edible palm heart
Dysis pilulifera ovomamy, lavaboko, 
Sambirano region, Marojejy & Mantady  edible palm heart
Dypsis prestoniana tavilo, babovavy, tavilo Midongy area, SE coast edible palm heart
Dypsis scandens olokoloka  Ifanadian area in NE  stems split to make fish traps, bird cages, hats
Dypsis schatzii tsinkiara  E Madagascar: Betarnpona sterns to make blow-pipes
Dypsis thermarum fanikara  R Ranomafana National Park  stems split to make crayfish traps
Dypsis thiryana tsinkiara, 
sinkarambolavo maroampototra, 
Marojejy & Masoala to Anosibe-an- Ala  leaves for thaching?
Dypsis tsaralananensis kindro  Mt. Tsaratanana  edible palm heart
Dypsis tsaravoasira tsaravoasira, hovotravavy, lavaboko  Marojejy, Maroantsetra & Mananara  edible palm heart
Dypsis Utilis vonitra, vonitrandrano  E Madagascar  edible palm heart; edible fruit
Marojejya insignis menamoso, beondroka, maroalavehivavy, betefoka, besofina, hovotralanana, mandanzezika fohitanana E Coast, Marojejy to Andohahela  edible palm heart
Masoala kona kona, kogne  Ifanadiana area leaf has magical properties

Scientific Name
Selected Local Names
Masoala madagascariensis kase, hovotralanana, mandanozezikaoj  Morojejy,Masoala& Mananara  leaves for thatching
Orania longisquama  sindro, anivona, ovobolafotsy, vakapasy NW & E Madagascar  stem wood for house wall planks
Orania trispatha sindro, sindroa, anivo E Madagascar  stem wood for house construction
Ravenea albicans hozatsiketra  NE Madagascar  edible palm heart
Ravenea dransfieldii anivo, ovotsarorona, lakatra, lakabolavo Eastern Madagascar; between Marojejy Mts. & Ifanadiana edible palm heart ?; leaves for hat-making
Ravenea glauca anivo, sihara  Central-S Madagascar; W side Andringitra Mts. & Isalo edible palm heart ? 
Ravenea julietiae sindro madiniky, saroroira, vakapasy, anive. anivona E Madagascar, between Mananara Avaratra & Vangaindrano  stem wood for construction; hollowed out stems as irrigation pipes 
Ravenea lakatra lakatra, tsilanitafika, manarana  E Madagascar, between Andasibe & Vargaindrano  leaf fiber for hat making
Ravenea madagaseariensis anivo, anivokely, anivona, tovovoka Central & E Madagascar stem wood for house wall & floor planks
Ravenea rivularis gora, bakaly, vakaka, malio S Central Madagascar, Mangoky & Onilahy rivers seed collected for export 
Ravenea robustior hovotravavy, manara, tanave, retanan,monimony, loharanga, anivona. laafa, anivo, lakabolavo, bobokaomby, vakabe, vakaboloka NW, E & SE Madagascar  stem wood for construction & furniture; leaves for thatching; edible palm heart;stem pith eaten.
Ravenea sambiranensis anivo, anivona, mafabely, soindro, ramangaisina NW,W&E Madagascar  stem wood for floor planks; edible palm heart edible fruit
Ravenew xerophila ahaza, anivo, anivona  S Madagascar, between Ampanihy & Ampingaratra Mts leaf fiber for hats & baskets
Voanioala gerardii (monotypic) voanioala Masoala Peninsula edible palm heart 


1. All are endemic to Madagascar
2. Numerous species of Dypsis were formerly in the genera Chrysalidocarpus, Neodypsis, Neophloga and Phloga. Source: Dransfield and Beentje, 1995.


Palm hearts and stem wood represent the most prevalent palm usages involving threatened palms, and the two frequently go hand-in-hand. When a palm is felled for its stem wood, the heart, if edible, is also extracted and eaten. The reported cutting of palms for stem wood or palm heart is particularly alarming since about three-fourths of the involved species are single-stemmed.

Very little empirical data exist on how individual threatened palm species could be sustainably managed. One welcome exception is a new study on conservation and in situ management of Dypsis decaryi. It recommends that annual leaf harvesting be no more than about 25 percent of the leaves per tree per year and that seed collection be limited to well under 95 percent of the annual crop to assure natural regeneration (Ratsirarson et al., 1996).

Non-threatened Madagascar Palms

A small number of native palms currently occur in sufficient populations to consider promotion of greater use of their products. Nine such species are listed in Table 7-5. Madagascarís two non-endemic palms, Hyphaene coriacea and Phoenix reclinata, are included in the table.

Table 7-5: Non-threatened Madagascar Palms with Reported Uses
Scientific Name Local Names Distribution Products/Uses
Bismarckia nobilis satra, strabe, satrana, satranabe, satrapotsy N & W Madagascar (endemic) flattened trunk for construction; leaves for thatch & basketry; pith for bitter sago; ornamental tree
Dypsis1 baronii farihazo, tongalo N, Central & E Madagascar (endemic) edible palm heart; edible fruit; ornamental tree
Dypsis fibrosa vonitra, vonitrambohitra, ravimbontro MW & E Madagascar (endemic) leaves for thatching; inflorescence as brushes
Dypsis lastelliana menavozona, sira, ravintsira NW, NE & E Madagascar (endemic) pith formerly used to make salt; edible palm heart said to be poisonous
Dypsis lutescens rehazo, lafahazo, lafaza E coast (endemic) ornamental tree; other uses ?
Dypsis nodifera ovana, bedoda, sincaré, tsirika, tsingovatra NW, E & SE Madagascar (endemic)  hollowed out stems as blowpipes
Dypsis pinnatifrons tsingovatra, tsingovatrovatra, ovatsiketry, ambolo, hova, tsobolo Widespread in humid forest (endemic) hollowed out stems as blowpipes; house beams
Hyphaene coriacea satrana, sata W Madagascar (non-endemic) leaf fiber for basketry, hats, rope; edible palm heart; palm wine (see Table 9-19 for composition)
Phoenix reclinata dara, taratra, taratsy NW & NE Madagascar; isolated stands in SW (non-endemic) leaflets for basketry; fruit edible

Notes: 1. Numerous species of Dypsis were formerly in the genera
Chrysalidocarpus, Neodypsis, Neophloga and Phloga.

Source: Dransfield and Beentje, 1995.


Although the palms in Table 7-5 have development potential for forest products, there are certain factors with respect to individual products which must be taken into account. Products requiring the felling of a palm for sago, palm heart, construction wood or other stem uses, results in killing the individual tree. If the involved palm species is single-stemmed, this destroys seed sources and makes regeneration difficult and uncertain; such practices are inherently unsustainable. Clustering palms, on the other hand, can be harvested for such products and possess the potential to be managed on a sustainable basis.

There are three species of palms in Madagascar which were introduced to the island and are either under cultivation or have become naturalized. These are the coconut, Cocos nucifera; tsingilo (local name) or African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis; and raffia palm, Raphia farinifera. The raffia and coconut palms are sources of numerous food and nonfood items for local people. In sharp contrast to its wide utility on the African Mainland, the African oil palm is of limited importance in Madagascar.

Seychelles, Mascarene Islands and Comoro Islands

These three small island groups of the western Indian Ocean are comparable to Madagascar in terms of native palm populations. The palm flora of each island group is unique with exceedingly high rates of palm endemism; in the Seychelles all six of the native palms are endemic. Threats to the palm populations are as great as in Madagascar, owing to human population pressures, animal introductions and agriculture which has led to significant habitat destruction and to animal introductions. All the native palms in these islands are classified as threatened. There should be no promotion of non-wood forest products from natural palm populations. Fortunately, coconut palms are naturalized in the islands and serve as a source of products for local people.

See Okereke (1982) for a description of traditional palm wine practices.

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