What follows is a brief description of the oil palm issue in Nigeria. After reading it, we invite you to send us comments.
Oil palm in Nigeria
West Africa used to be the centre of the palm oil industry. The export of palm kernels began in 1832 and by 1911 “British” West Africa alone exported 157,000 tonnes of which about 75 percent came from Nigeria. In the 1870s, British administrators took the plant to Malaysia and in 1934 that country surpassed Nigeria as the largest exporter of the product. Led by Nigeria and Zaire, Africa continued to lead the world in production and export of palm oil throughout the first half of the 20th century. By 1966, however, Malaysia and Indonesia had surpassed Africa’s total palm oil production. 
In Nigeria, oil palm is indigenous to the coastal plain, having migrated inland as a staple crop. For millions of Nigerians, oil palm cultivation is part of the way of life –indeed it is part of their culture. However, during the past decades the country has become a net importer of palm oil. While in the early 1960s, Nigeria’s palm oil production accounted for 43% of the world production, nowadays it only accounts for 7% of total global output. 
In Nigeria 80% of production comes from dispersed smallholders who harvest semi-wild plants and use manual processing techniques. Several million smallholders are spread over an estimated area ranging from 1.65 million hectares to 2.4 million hectares and to a maximum of 3 million hectares. 
As documented in the case of Akwa Ibom State, women play an important role in the production, storage and commercialization of red palm oil (see details in annex below).
Many of those plantations are the result of past attempts of the Nigerian government to implement large-scale plantations, most of which resulted in complete failures. Such were the cases of the 1960’s Cross River State project and of the European Union-funded “Oil palm belt rural development programme” in the 1990’s. This project included the plantation of 6,750 hectares of oil palm within an area thought to be one of the largest remnants of tropical rainforest in Nigeria and it was implemented by a company called Risonpalm Ltd., partly owned by the government. In spite of local opposition, the project moved forward and EU funding was only discontinued in 1995, seven years after its approval.  The plantation was abandoned in 1999 and reactivated in 2003. In 2010, the local governor announced his intention to privatize it, stating that “We will not put money into Risonpalm again” and that “We will only bring people who will put in their money and manage Risonpalm very well.”
The World Bank played an important role in the promotion of the oil palm business in Nigeria. According to a recent World Bank document, Nigeria has been “the second largest recipient of World Bank palm oil sector projects, with six projects over the 1975 to 2009 period. One project is still under implementation. Results achieved included the plantation of 42,658 ha of oil palm, as well as road improvement and increased milling capacity.
Government management of its plantation estates proved to be disastrous. As the governor of Rivers State recently said “Government has put so much money in Risonpalm and so many people became rich out of Risonpalm by stealing the money. Now we will not put money again so that people won’t steal our money anymore.”
As a result, many oil palm producers eventually inherited abandoned government plantations which were sub-divided and leased to private producers. Some individual owners formed limited liability companies. These have younger plants/fields some of which are yet to fruit, while most of the oil palm plantations are over 30 years.
The Federal Government appears to be now willing to revitalise oil palm production. In April 2010, the government launched –together with the UN’s Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the government of Cameroon- a Common Fund for Commodities “in order to improve the income generating potential of oil palm in West and Central Africa.” The initiative was developed by UNIDO and funding is shared between Nigeria, Cameroon, UNIDO and the private sector.
In line with the above, officials of Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) have recently said that “promotion of private sector participation in oil palm plantation holds the ace in effective revival of the produce business in the country.” Director of NIFOR, Dr Dere Okiy has stated that “the land tenure system in the country” is a “limiting factor against private mass production of palm oil by individuals” and “called on local and state governments to provide land areas to oil palm farmers to encourage mass production of palm oil.”
The increasing imports of palm oil -widely used by the Nigerian people as edible oil- may help to explain the recent government’s interest in palm oil production. Such may be the case with Presco, a subsidiary of Belgian company Siat S.A. that has oil palm plantations in two concessions in Edo State (the Obaretin Estate with 7,000 hectares and the Ologbo Estate with 6,000 hectares), and one in Delta State (the Cowan Estate, with 3,000 hectares). The company processes the oil palm fruit into different products within the country. 
However, the current worldwide push for the use of palm oil as the basis for the production of biodiesel probably provides a better explanation.
Italian company Fri-El Green Power is a good example of the above. The company first started investigating the potential for palm oil production in Nigeria during 2005 and in 2007 the first privatisation agreement for the government-owned Abia Palm oil palm plantation –in southern Nigeria- was signed. In July 2008, Fri-El Abia Palm Ltd. was officially opened by the Abia State governor during a ceremony in Ohambele. Shortly after this, work on the rehabilitation of the plantation started. At the same time the old oil mill in Mbwasi was repaired and brought into production.
The Italian company plans to eventually use the palm oil processed in Nigeria to fuel liquid biomass power plants in Europe. Fri El Green Power has an 80% stake in the project while the Abia State Government has 20% with an obligation to transfer 10% to the local community. The company got a concession of 11,292 hectares, including the former Abia Palm plantation, and a right to extend the concession up to 100,000 ha.
In spite of Nigeria’s massive electricity shortage, Fri-El Green Power does not plan to supply electricity locally. According to the company’s president Thomas Gostner. “We plan to invest in the palm oil plantation, the processing of the fruit and convert it into electricity in Europe.” In the best of cases, “each oil mill can additionally produce some electricity for local needs using waste product.”
Everything seems to point at the possible expansion of oil palm plantations in Nigeria -revitalizing old ones and establishing new ones- both aimed at the national and international market. Local communities should be aware that local and state governments may in the future – as NIFOR demands- “provide land areas to oil palm farmers to encourage mass production of palm oil.”
Annex 1: Oil Women of Akwa Ibom State
The red palm oil is a common ingredient in the cooking of almost every type of dish prepared in Nigeria. Akwa Ibom state, a coastal state in south eastern Nigeria is one of the areas where oil is produced in large quantities, mainly by women.
The processing of the fruits into vegetable oil is most commonly carried out by women. It begins with harvesting the ripe fruits which grows in clusters weighing between 20-30 Kilos. The women work communally in groups of 2 or 3. 10-20 bunches of ripe fruit from the palm tree are cut and gathered. The harvested fruits are then cut into smaller clusters and sprinkled with water, and then, covered with thick jute bags or banana leaves to aid fermentation and make it easy for the seeds to be picked easily from its spiky stalks.
Two or three days after, the seeds are picked, washed and packed in to iron drums and boiled. This process is tedious. Fire kindled from gathered fire-wood is usually prepared a night before and at intervals, rekindled to keep the fire cooking constantly hot. As early as 4 or 5 a.m. the boiled seeds whose fleshy pericarp has become soft and tender are scooped with a small basket or sieve bowl into an earth dug-out mortar, which has been fitted with a metal drum. The boiled seeds are then pounded with a wooden pestle to separate the fleshy pericarp from its hard kernel seeds.
The next stage involves scooping this mixture onto a flat trough or onto the ground which had been covered with banana leaves. The kernel seeds are then separated from the fibrous mash. This is then scooped into a cylindrical hollow press. The wrench is then turned slowly and gradually, as this is being done, the extracted oil from the holes in the press is guided through a duct at the bottom of the press into a large bowl, trough or container. This process is carried out several times until oil is drained from the marshy mixture.
The next stage is carefully draining the oil into containers; in doing so, the women are careful not to allow dirt, fiber or other foreign matter into the oil. The finished product if in large quantity may be further stored in larger metal drums awaiting buyers who come to buy them off these women and transported to other towns. If the oil is not so large in quantity they are then taken to the local market for sale; either way, the Akwa Ibom woman earns her money. Though the process is tedious, the oil is top quality if processed by an experienced producer.
Excerpted from “Oil Women of Akwa Ibom State” by Patrick B. Akpan
Annex 2: “Foot pressing” of palm fruit into palm oil
A BBC slideshow describes with pictures the processing of the palm oil 
The process is described as follows:
“Once the kernels have been picked and brought home, women take over the palm oil production. They pour the hot kernels into a hollowed out log, placed in a shady spot. A woman steps into the trough and walks up and down its length. As they add more water, the husk begins to fall away from the nut, releasing the fatty yellow juice. As the woman treads up and down, the mixture makes a sucking, burping sound. It clings to her feet, clogging her toes and spreading a vivid yellow stain up her ankles.
There are two places in the state that have machines to do this, but people have stopped taking their crop to them as police demand bribes from people moving goods, wiping out their profits.
This harvest from a handful of trees has taken 48 hours to process. “This amount of kernels will get us one full jerry can of oil, that’s about 20 litres,” says one woman. They will be able to sell that for 3,000 naira ($20; £14). In the wet season they can make more oil, but the price goes down.
Traders come and buy the seeds for further processing. The seeds are roasted and then broken open. The translucent white inside the nut can be eaten and is itself rich in oil. This oil is extracted by a more complicated process and turned into a kind of tonic oil, which people rub on their children’s bodies. They say the oil prevents colds and flu.