African Oil Palm: What it is, How it’s Processed, And Why it’s Important to You

The rains in Basse Guinea have just begun and, despite the occasional shower, families and workers all across the region are busy. The Basse Cote region of Guinea is dominated by oil palm production and the large, spiny fruits are ready for harvest. The fruit takes 6 months from pollination to maturity, each made up of a fleshy outer pulp with a single seed. Once ripe, each bundle of fruit weights between 80-110 lbs. These giant bundles are extremely high-yielding – oil can be extracted from both the pulp and the seed kernel – and the production of palm oil is the leading source of agricultural income in both Basse Guinea and Forest Guinea.

Elaeis guineensis, the African oil palm

Elaeis guineensis, the African oil palm

I’ve spent the past week with my family at their plantation in Koba. They have a separate house specifically to store the fruits in and to stay in during the harvest period. We leave the compound at 8:00am and don’t return until it’s dark — all the cooking and work is done on the plantation. First, the fruits must be chopped off the tree. Then, transported from the forest to the house. Here they must be hand-picked off the bundles (careful to avoid the spines!  yowch!) and then the individual fruits are boiled. A machine has been brought in for members of the village to use for small-scale production of the oil. If there’s no machine available, the fruits must be pounded by hand using a large mortar and pistil. Once all the work has been done, my family plans to sell the oil in Conakry. It is their largest source of income.

Plantation Road

Left: the plantation of former president, Lansana Conte. Right: my host-family’s plantation.

My host-sister, Yatou, posing with her machete before the day's work begins.

My host-sister, Yatou, posing with her machete before the day’s work begins.

Yatou carrying wood to the area where the machine has been brought.

Yatou carrying wood to the area where the machine has been brought.

Bountourabi wasn't a fan of the machine's noise.

Bountourabi wasn’t a fan of the machine’s noise.

The machine at work. Boiled fruits are processed through the machine to produce red oil.

The machine at work. Boiled fruits are processed through the machine to produce red oil.

A large barrel full of boiling seeds. The husks from previous batches are used, along with wood, as fuel.

A large barrel full of boiling seeds. The husks from previous batches are used, along with wood, as fuel.

Yatou posing Bountourabi for a photograph.

Yatou posing Bountourabi for a photograph.

A model, by nature.

A model, by nature.

Palm oil, often simply labeled as “Vegetable Oil” in the aisles of Shoprite and Trader Joe’s, is found in approximately 45% of household products in the United States. One estimate suggests that about a half of all packaged items found in supermarkets contain it. By 2020, the use of palm oil is expected to double as the world’s population increases and people consume more manufactured goods containing palm oil.

PalmOilProducts

The oil palm is native to West Africa but is now grown extensively in Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, they are now the world’s number one and two exporter of palm oil. 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, and the practices are largely unsustainable. Massive deforestation and habitat degradation have severely harmed animal populations and increased the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. In 2006, Indonesia produced more than 20 million tonnes of palm oil. In 2012, Malaysia churned out over 18 million tonnes.

Where does Guinea stand?

Far behind, with much room for growth.

At the time of independence in 1958, Guinea was a major exporter of palm oil. Unfortunately since then, the global market has taken off and Guinea has failed to keep up. National palm oil output is estimated at 50,000 tonnes annually. This is mainly from natural oil palm groves on family-run plantations (like my family here in Koba!), but there is a large-scale outfit located in the Forest Region: Société Guinéenne du Palmier à Huile (The Guinean Society for Palm Oil). Using hybrid varieties across 3,000+ hectares, SOGUIPAH has begun to industrialize palm oil in Guinea and employs over 2,000 workers. Perhaps within a few decades, Guinea will retake its place as a major player in the ever-growing global palm oil market.

Sources:

http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/forests/palm_oil/

http://wrm.org.uy/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Oil_Palm_in_Africa_2013.pdf

http://oilpalminafrica.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/guinea/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_oil