Oil palm farm systems in Africa

The primary unit of production of the palm oil industry is the farm where the oil palm tree is cultivated to produce palm fruits. There are also wild groves of oil palm. The farm units are of different sizes and may be classified as small, medium, and large-scale estates.

The wild groves, as the name implies, grow untended in the forest. They are found in clusters and are mainly the result of natural seed dispersal. Dura, the main variety found in the groves, for decades has been the source of palm oil - well before modern methods of oil palm cultivation were introduced to Africa in the second quarter of the 20th century.

The other varieties are Pisifera and Tenera, which is a hybrid variety obtained by crossing Dura and Pisifera. The Dura has a large nut with a thick shell and thin mesocarp. The Pisifera is a small fruit with no shell. By crossing the Dura with Pisifera a fruit is obtained with a thick mesocarp containing much more oil and fat (chemically saturated oil) than either of its parents. The Tenera nut is small and is easily shelled to release the palm kernel. The Tenera palm kernel is smaller than the Dura kernel although the Tenera bunch is much larger than Dura. In all, the Tenera is a much better variety for industrial and economic purposes.

Unfortunately, traditional farmers in Africa have not embraced the Tenera because consumers complained that the palm oil produced from the variety was too fatty. This means that when the oil cools to ambient temperature it ‘goes to sleep’ or solidifies instead of remaining fluid and red. The oil did not have the right taste as oil or as a soup base. Extension officers failed to position the Tenera as high-yielding industrial purpose oil, as opposed to oil for home cooking. The negative perception of Tenera led to its slow adoption and the failure of Africa to maintain its lead in palm oil production.

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