Early trading in palm products

International trade in palm oil began at the turn of the nineteenth century, while that of palm kernels developed only after 1832. Palm oil became the principal cargo for slave ships after abolition of the slave trade. The establishment of trade in palm oil from West Africa was mainly the result of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. As people in Europe began to take sanitation and hygiene seriously, demand for soap increased, resulting in the demand for vegetable oil suitable for soap manufacture and other technical uses. Tinplating required technical oil for which palm oil was found suitable. In the early 1870s exports of palm oil from the Niger Delta were 25 000 to 30 000 tonnes per annum and by 1911 the British West African territories exported 87 000 tonnes.

The export of palm kernels also began in 1832 and by 1911 British West Africa alone exported 157 000 tonnes of which about 75 percent came from Nigeria. Nigeria was the largest exporter until 1934 when the country was surpassed by Malaysia. Africa led the world in production and export of palm oil throughout the first half of the 20th century, led by Nigeria and Zaire. By 1966, however, Malaysia and Indonesia had surpassed Africa’s total palm oil production. According to Oil Palm Review, published by the Tropical Development and Research Institute in the United Kingdom, over 3 million tonnes of palm oil was produced by Malaysia alone in 1983, compared with a total of about 1.3 million tonnes of African production.

This publication does not intend to discuss the factors leading to the spectacular performance of Indonesia and Malaysia. However in these countries solid research and development has been undertaken backed by a conscious desire to implement research findings. The plantation development culture acquired from long cultivation and processing of latex rubber was a good foundation on which to introduce the large-scale plantation cultivation of palm oil. Mastery of technology and rapid mechanisation, together with government support to the industry as a systematic and strategic industrial development policy, facilitated private sector investment in this sector. These factors as well as many others have all played a part in the development of the Far East’s rise to prominence in the oil palm industry.

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