Kenya’s acute shortage of locally grown edible oil has driven the product up to become the country’s second largest import, after petroleum. But trials of a new kind of fast growing, high yielding oil palm are now opening the way to a halving of the imports, through a crop now better suited to western Kenya than to the world’s leading producer, Malaysia, according to scientists. The pilot project in western Kenya follows years of development by agronomists of an oil palm well suited to the Kenyan climate.
Until now, the only oil palm variety that grew in cold African climates was the dura, which produces fruit with a low volume of pulp and low yields of edible oil.
However, Food and Agricultural Organization FAO agronomists began studying the potential of the dura while working in the highlands of Tanzania and Cameroon in the 1970s. They transferred the material to Costa Rica, where it was crossed with the high yielding, precocious tenera variety.
The FAO has now returned the resulting hybrids to Africa, in a series of demonstration projects in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia.
The pilot project now taking part in Western Kenya is being structured to deliver a boost to the local production of palm oil that would cut imports by as much as 50 per cent, by growing seedlings from Costa Rica in community nurseries and with the region's largest sugar company Mumias Sugar Company.
The oil palm hybrids offer the potential to draw both small-scale and industrial producers into edible oil production.
The western Kenyan climate is already favourable to a range of annual and perennial oil seed crops, including sunflower, soya, groundnuts, safflower, sim-sim and linseed, many of which are traditional crops in the area. But the local climate for the new oil palm is comparable to - or even better than - that of the world's biggest oil palm grower, Malaysia, with rainfall more evenly distributed and greater cumulative sunshine intensity.
Trials of the high yielding oil palm in Ethiopia have shown the oil palm becomes productive at 38 months, and grows well at altitudes of 950 metres and at low temperatures that usually limit fruit production. In Zambia, the hybrid yields 9 litres of oil three years after field planting, and is expected to produce 20-30 litres at year six, compared with the local dura palms that begin production at about year eight, with one third the oil yield.
“Farmers have been very receptive to this idea and the pilot is coming along quite fine. Our biggest challenge now is how to scale the production even higher, especially in this area where the climate favours the oil seed crops,” said Nathaniel Wekesa who is actively involved in the project.
The organisers of the pilot project are seeking to up-scale further by getting into a partnership with western Kenya's largest agroindustrial producer, the Mumias Sugar Company, and its outgrower network of some 40,000 smallholder farmers. They will be supplied with the palm oil seeds and training on farm management.
Mumias will run the extraction from the oil seeds and make payment of the farmers at attractive rates. “We haven’t decided about the exact payment, but we will have to buy from the farmers at a higher price than the middlemen buy from the few farmers who have invested in the seeds. We want to encourage more farmers to invest in this for the long term to roll out industrial production of the palm oil,” said Zablon Lemi a coordinator of the project.
At present, Kenya's domestic production covers only about one-third of its annual demand for edible oils, estimated at some 380,000 tonnes. The remainder is imported, at a cost of around $140m, making edible oil the country's second most important import item after petroleum.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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