24 November 2003, Rome
A cold-tolerant, high-yielding oil palm being promoted by FAO in western
Kenya could be a boon to small-scale farmers and industrial producers alike, increasing
incomes improving diets, reducing imports of food oil and providing much-needed
crop diversification for local sugar growers.
Until the FAO project, which
began in 1993, the only oil palm variety that grew in cooler African climates
was the dura type, which produces fruit with a low volume of pulp and therefore
low yields of edible oil.
FAO agronomists first noted the dura variety's
cold tolerance in the highlands of Tanzania and Cameroon, and seeing its potential,
transferred the material to Costa Rica, where it was crossed with precocious high-yielding
tenera varieties. The resultant hybrids were returned to several East
African countries, including Kenya, for field trials.
The results were
encouraging. After four years the Kenyan trees had fruited successfully, even
under poor husbandry. Hybrid seedlings are now being grown in community nurseries
in western Kenya and by the Mumias Sugar Company, the region's largest sugar producer.
The climate in western Kenya is well-suited to oil palm cultivation when
using cold-tolerant hybrids and may even be better than that of Malaysia, the
world's largest producer of palm oil, according to Peter Griffee, FAO Senior Officer
for Industrial Crops and one of the key technical officers for the project.
"It usually rains in the evening and is sunny during the day," says Griffee.
"So while the rainfall is similar to that of Malaysia, there are longer hours
of sunshine, which is essential for oil development."
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is one of
the largest of the palm species and produces more oil per hectare than any other
oil crop. Palm oil is the world's second major vegetable oil, after soybean, with
annual production of fresh fruit bunches approaching 100 million metric tonnes
The potential of the hybrids is considerable. Fruit can be harvested
from three-year-old palms, and the palms reach maturity at about six years, if
well tended. Mature palms yield about 20 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hectare
a year, or 4 tonnes of oil. The palms' productive life is about 25 years.
cultivation of oil palms has ecological benefits as well.
"Oil palm is
environment-friendly," notes Griffee. "It doesn't compete with native vegetation
or food crops in western Kenya. There's no need to turn the soil over every year,
so there's less erosion and soil compaction."
After the oil has been extracted,
empty fruit bunches can be used as mulch to enhance moisture retention, soil nutrient
content and soil organic matter.
In addition to stabilizing the soil, the
trees harbor a great diversity of wildlife.
From imports to local
At present, Kenya's domestic production of edible oils covers
about a third of its annual demand, estimated at around 380 000 metric tonnes.
The rest is imported at a cost of around US$140 million a year, making edible
oil the country's second most important import after petroleum.
palm provides opportunities for both small-scale and industrial producers to help
alleviate the country's edible oil deficit, while providing local communities
with an additional source of income in a region where half the rural population
lives in poverty.
The oil can be easily extracted by hand or with simple
extractors and used in crude form in the household to produce not only tasty dishes,
but products such as soap.
And the oil palm may fill a growing cash-crop
vacuum. Kenya is increasingly focusing on industrial agricultural production,
as evidenced by foreign investment and sales in relatively new sectors, such as
cut flowers, selected vegetables, pharmaceutical crops and others. There is strong
interest in diversification into new and alternative cash crops that show potential.
The oil palm fits nicely into this niche.
The Mumias Sugar Company, one
of FAO's partners in the Kenya project, is making plans to open a 500-hectare
oil palm plantation. The company has an outgrower network of some 60 000
farmers. Most of the farmers are smallholders and many are part of FAO's Farmer
"This project will have a big impact on these smallholders,"
says Griffee. "With sugar prices continuing to drop, the company would have to
get rid of around 20 000 outgrowers if they didn't diversify."
A healthy choice
Palm oil's benefits are not only economic. Red palm
oil's high level of mono-unsaturated fats reduces levels of LDL the so-called
"bad" cholesterol while maintaining HDL, or "good" cholesterol, levels.
It is also an excellent source of vitamins A and E much-needed dietary
supplements in the region. Spoonfuls of red palm oil are being given to children
at the Alupe Hospital in Kenya in place of vitamin A pills, and the Ministry of
Health is considering distributing the oil as a dietary supplement throughout
Another plus: red palm oil has a longer shelf-life than most
other edible oils due to its high level of anti-oxidants, which make it especially
resistant to rancidity.
One of the main supermarket chains in Kenya imports
raw red palm oil from West Africa for sale as a dietary supplement. As local production
increases, retailers will be able to turn to home-grown products.
As palm oil is largely unknown in traditional Kenyan
cooking, efforts are being made to court local tastes. The project is sending
a nutritionist from the region to Ghana to undergo a cooking and nutrition course
on the benefits and uses of red palm oil. She will use this training to produce
a cookbook for western Kenya, adapted to local tastes and ingredients.
Healthy and, if not wealthy, more secure
Around 10 000
palms have been planted to date, and 5 000 more are anticipated by the time
the FAO project ends next August. The initiative will continue under the direction
of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute and the Government.
currently producing an illustrated easy-to-use manual for farmers, outlining the
dos and don'ts of oil palm cultivation. The manual contains information on the
tools needed, how to select an appropriate site for planting, as well as common
problems and how to avoid them. The manual will be translated into at least one
local language and will be used in FAO's Farmer Field Schools.
farm families in the region capitalize on other market opportunities, the project
has trained women's groups to make soap for sale and home use from low grade palm
oil and other local ingredients.
According to Griffee, ten palms
per family is enough to make them self-sufficient in cooking oil and give them
a little extra income from local sales of oil or soap.
"Oil palms won't
make people rich, but may keep them healthy and economically stable," he says.
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 56146