This section is from the book "The Planting, Cultivation And Expression Of Coconuts, Kernels, Cacao And Edible Vegetable Oils And Seeds Of Commerce", by H. Osman Newland. Also available from Amazon: The Planting, Cultivation And Expression Of Coconuts, Kernels, Cacao And Edible Vegetable Oils And Seeds Of Commerce.
First, perhaps, in commercial importance, among the oil products of West Africa, is that of the oil palm; there is an enormous supply of this commodity in the country which at present rots on the ground, and which might be turned to profitable account by very shrewd enterprise, working on more economical lines than the majority of present plantation companies in West Africa. The oil palm,* which is indigenous to West Africa, from Senegal and Bissagos on the north to the Congo Basin and Angola on the south, is most prolific from Sierra Leone to the Cameroons from the seaboard towards the interior, diminishing in those districts where the climate becomes drier, or where rocky and mountainous tracts intervene. It is rarely found beyond 200 miles from the coast. The most suitable situation is where the soil is generally moist. Swampy, ill-drained land is not favourable. In those parts of the country where there is gravelly laterite over a deep substratum of syenite, trees may abound in considerable numbers, but the trunks of such trees do not acquire the same thickness as those growing in damper or lighter ground. No distinct varieties are recognised by the natives, although distinctive names are applied to the same fruit in different stages of development. Yet there is great disparity between oil palms, both in yield and quality, to the extent of 30 per cent. Some have thin pericarps, yielding less oil and more kernels- e.g., in Sierra Leone-others have thin-shelled kernels and thicker pericarps. The oil palm does not thrive in heavy forest, but in open valleys with low undergrowth. The seeds or nuts, which are large and heavy, are distributed by the agency of birds and mammals.
* See " Sierra Leone : Its People, Products, and Secret Societies."
The full-grown oil palm attains a height of about 60 feet, and consists of a stem covered throughout its length with the bases of dead leaves, and bearing at the apex a crown of large, pinnate leaves, each of which may be 15 feet long, with leaflets 2 feet or 3 feet long.
The tree is very slow growing, reaching a height of 6 inches to 9 inches in three years, 12 inches to 18 inches in four or five years, 8 feet in ten years, 13 feet to 14 feet in fifteen years, and attaining its full height of 60 feet in about 120 years.
The fruit is borne in bunches termed " heads" hands' or " cones," which are small and numerous when the tree first begins to bear, from the fourth to the eighth year, and larger but less numerous as the tree becomes older. The oil palm requires little cultivation ; where-ever natives settle in previously uncultivated spots, they plant oil palms, and, as they rarely cut these down when subsequently clearing their fallow ground, the number of such trees increases from year to year.
Where, however, the oil palm has received the attention of the plantation, as in French Guinea (and in the Krobo district of the Gold Coast before the cocoa boom set in), the palm groves are in a more flourishing condition, and have yielded better results. The cocoa trees in the Krobo district were first planted as catch-crops between the palms, but, proving more lucrative, have become the main crop.
Coconuts, Kernels, etc.- Capt. H. O. Newland.
Natives climbing Oil Palms in West Africa.
In French Dahomey every encouragement is being given by the Government to the oil palm industry among the natives, and the result has been to make this one of the most Flourishing of the African colonies which France possesses on that continent.
In Nigeria, the British Government has encouraged more careful planting of palms, with the result that oil from these districts fetches the best price. In Liberia, a British syndicate is interesting itself to produce good results.
On a plantation, the distance between palms should be not less than 25 feet, and catch-crops should not be grown after the tenth year.
Permanent crops such as cocoa and rubber are hardly suitable for interplanting with the oil palm unless the palm trees are at least 45 feet apart, when funtumia elastica and cocoa may be grown satisfactorily. A rotation of crops may be carried out where the palm trees are 25 feet apart with the following products :-Maize, manihot (cassava), ginger, ground nuts, tobacco, chillies, yams, native beans, and pine-apples. But before planting a large area of any one product the demand of local and European markets should be carefully studied. It is worthy of note, too, that local markets in West Africa are to-day worth attention, good prices being often realised for maize, cassava, ginger, native beans, and yams. The returns from the sale of the catch-crop produce should help to pay for the necessary attention required by the permanent crops until they come into bearing, as well as to meet other working expenses of the estate.
Each tree from about 10 to 30 feet in height is calculated to bear at least seven cones of fruit, and in full bearing under good conditions the yield is from 8 to 10 bunches.* A record bunch has weighed 56 lbs. and contained 1,445 serviceable oil nuts. The yield per acre would be from 536 to 670 bunches from the eighth year, where palm trees are planted 25 feet apart, which gives 67 trees to the acre. The yield of oil per acre by European method of extraction would be from one to one-and-a-half tons of oil, exclusive of kernels. The quantity of kernels obtainable per tree would vary from 26 to 35 lbs. according to the variety, or from 15 to 21 cwts. per acre.
The natives remove a few of the lower leaves around the crown of the tree each year. This practice is supposed to increase the yield from 25 to 50 per cent., and is worth trial by Europeans.
To secure the cones, the natives have become expert climbers. The cones are cut with sharp knives, in order to detach the fruit. This fruit consists of (a) an outer covering or pericarp, which contains the palm oil of commerce, and (b) the palm nut. The pericarp often holds about 60 per cent, of its own weight of oil, and as this part is 40 per cent, of the whole, the amount of oil is about 24 per cent. The fruit, when freed from the cone, is placed in the sun for a few days and fermented by being stacked in heaps and covered by leaves for some days more. The release of the fruit from its fibrous case is thereby easier. In consequence of the fermentation, the glycerine (now worth £200 per ton), of which the palm oil, when produced from fresh fruit, contains as much as 10 per cent., is reduced to 5 or even a lower percentage, making, as may be imagined, a very serious difference in its market value.