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Hybrid oil palms bear fruit in western Kenya

FAO project improves incomes and diets, and may reduce imports of food oil

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."

High-yielding, environment-friendly
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 per year.

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.

The 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 production
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.

The hybrid 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 Field Schools.

"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 the region.

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.

Cultivating tastes
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.

FAO is 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.

To help 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.

Teresa Buerkle
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
+39 06 570 56146


Ronald Wanjala, a nursery attendant at the Mumias 
Sugar Company in western Kenya, holds a fresh fruit bunch he has just collected.

Ronald Wanjala, a nursery attendant at the Mumias Sugar Company in western Kenya, holds a fresh fruit bunch he has just collected.

Hybrid seedlings at the Mumias Sugar Company.

Hybrid seedlings at the Mumias Sugar Company.

Mature palms yield about 20 tonnes of fresh 
fruit per hectare a year.

Mature palms yield about 20 tonnes of fresh fruit per hectare a year.

The fruit is first boiled, then the oil extracted 
by hand or with simple extractors.

The fruit is first boiled, then the oil extracted by hand or with simple extractors.

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