The Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) organized a one-day training and interaction in oil palm economy at the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI) on Ikwerre Road in Port Harcourt last week.
The focus was on how to revitalize oil palm sub sector in Rivers State to join other 26 states in Nigeria to boost export in the sector.
At the workshop, director-general (DG) of the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (PHCCIMA), Mr Erasmus Chukundah, who is the Rivers State chairman of the Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN), delivered what many saw as the keynote address detailing the oil palm journey in the state and Nigeria as a whole.
Mr Chukundah later took time out to explain the details in an exclusive interview with IGNATIUS CHUKWU.
Read on: I am the Rivers State chairman of the Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN), and also a member of the National Technical Committee on Review of Nigeria Oil Palm Policy set up in 2019. I am representing Rivers State on that committee. We submitted the report in 2020 to Ministry of Industry and Investment.
Deep background in oil palm industry
I served in the Rivers State Oil Palm (RISONPALM) establishment for 23 years and got to the position of project manager, and later the finance manager of the oil palm company. I also became the project manager of the oil palm belt of the National Planning Commission and ended as member of the Interim Management Board of RISONPALM.
The journey of oil palm industry in Rivers State is just like the journey of Nigeria. I thus want to say that just as Nigeria was number one in the 1960s in the whole world, so was Rivers tops in Nigeria. Nigeria had about 43 per cent share of global market but now we are number five. Malaysia is now number one, followed by Indonesia and Thailand.
This situation affected Rivers State because when anybody traces the palm oil wealth, you cannot forget Rivers State. When we were in Eastern Nigeria, we have the eastern Nigeria Development Corporation and oil palm was the major product of the South-South in that bloc. Coal was from Enugu.
One of the things that made the first port to be sited in Port Harcourt was because of palm oil and coal from Enugu. These were sent overseas.
From then, Rivers State was doing very well in palm oil and it was one of the huge revenue earners for the region and nation.
Rivers, now number 3
RISONPALM was established as an integrated industry for everything palm oil, but later it went down. In 2011, it was handed to SIAT to manage through privatization. SIAT is a European company that also owns Presco.
The outfit is doing well right now. They now have 10,000 hectares of land in its headquarters in Ubima, 6000 ha in Eleme, and 300 ha in Bori. Yet, the strength of the state lies in smallholder farmers.
Before now, Rivers State was number one in Nigeria and SIAT was number one in West Africa. Right now, 27 states are in oil palm programme and Rivers State is now number three.
This is because the state government and some of those institutions that ought to help to push for expansion of the oil palm economy in the state have not done anything. They have not paid attention to smallholder farmers who actually control 70 per cent of the oil palm trees in Nigeria.
Neglecting smallholder oil palm farmers
Smallholder farmers are on top. This shows that any state that does not give relevant attention to smallholder farming scheme and the farmers will not do well.
I want the world to know that OPGAN has done much. We have planted 1000 ha, and we have established two tons per hour in 10 locations in Rivers State. Now, this is what small farmers can do. It shows we are ready to work with the state government to revitalise the oil palm industry in Rivers State and Nigeria.
World Bank fund that was never utilized
In 2018, the Central bank of Nigeria (CBN) wrote to the Rivers State government on how to revitalize oil palm industry in the south-south but only Edo State responded and has thus become number one state followed by Akwa Ibom State ahead of Rivers on number three.
We can take back number spot
We can take back our number one position if the new Rivers State governor grants our request for a meeting to look at our proposal.
The CBN was ready to fund cultivation of 100,000 ha of oil palm plantations but Rivers State was to present 10,000 ha of land but the state government did not make use of that, but other states did. A letter was sent to the then governor but no response came. They had to turn to smallholder farmers and we have worked with them (CBN) since 2019.
We have plans to reach the new governor through the Ministry of Trade and Industry as we have registered as a cooperative. We want to brief the governor and show what we have done and, if possible, get assistance to revitalize the oil palm industry.
Smallholder farmers in Rivers State are ready
Smallholder farmers in Rivers State are ready and willing to lead the drive as is done in other top states. The Rivers State government in 2018 set up a committee to identify 10,000 ha of land when the CBN wrote them. They identified the lands for new oil palm development, but up to now, it has not been allocated.
I want the new governor to intervene and allocate the lands to smallholder famers to regain our number one position in Nigeria.
The state government can do more. If they meet with us, we tell them and show them more ways to revitalize oil palm system in the state.