Oil palm growing ushering in sustainable long-term incomes for households

By Peter Wambog-Mugirya

“What began as a simple adaptive research for oil palm growing in Uganda in 1970s by young scientists notably: the late Dr. Israel Kibirige Sebunya [former State Minister for Agriculture], Mr. Sabastian Matovu and later on Dr. Patrick Wetala, resulted into over 11,000 hectares of oil palm plantations on Bugala Island,” says a report by the Uganda Media Centre.

Indeed, wild oil palm fronds have been growing naturally in various parts of Uganda, more prominently in Kalangala District, the Ssese Islands — a clear/strong indicator that oil palms are most suitable crops to commercialize there.

Following years of research, in 199 government started on the road to commercialize oil palm growing on the island. This was done through a People Public Private Partnership (4PPP), where a private investor partner was sought to inject funding along the public and the people (smallholder farmers). The aim was to get an investor with skills and knowledge in the field of oil palm growing and willing to work with the community to pass on the skills. The intention of promoting oil palm growing on Bugala island was to alleviate poverty, increase domestic production of vegetable oils and reduce Uganda’s heavy reliance on vegetable oil imports. Initially, palm oil in particular used to account for 90% of oil imports.

The Vegetable Oil Development Project (VODP) was established to be in charge of the project, which was succeeded by the National Oil Palm Project (NOPP) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF). An agreement was signed between BIDCO Uganda Limited (BUL), a refinery company to develop oil palm in the Uganda. BIDCO together with Wilmar, an International oil palm plantation company based in Malaysia established the Oil Palm Uganda Limited (OPUL), which is charged with running the nucleus estate.

OPUL ensures the production of crude oil that is shipped to Jinja via a ferry on Lake Victoria to make final products by BIDCO, like soap and cooking oil from the palm oil fruit.   

Palm oil, the product of oil palm, is the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. It is used in food, cosmetics, and automotive industry among others. The worldwide demand for palm oil is robust. Palm oil is employed in the treatment of high blood pressure, malaria, cyanide poisoning, and high cholesterol.

“Indonesia remains as the market leader for exported palm oil. Global sales from palm oil exports by country totaled an estimated US$23.2 billion in 2019,” states a report by the New York-based Zion Market Research (ZMR).

Africa, Asia and Latin American regions offer the most favorable atmospheric conditions such as proper sunlight, warm temperatures, and plenty of rainfall for healthy growth of plants leading to the maximized crop production. Africa almost exports nothing yet land and an unemployed population to work the plantations are in plenty.

In Uganda, the National Oil Palm Project wants to change this narrative by expanding oil palm growing from Kalangala District to other areas. Currently, planting is ongoing in Buvuma Islands with further expansion expected in Mayuge, Masaka, Rakai, Bundibugyo and other parts of the country.

Target Beneficiaries                                                                                                                   The first target group are the prospective smallholder oil palm farmers in the new hubs like Buvuma, who may currently be practicing subsistence farming. These households will benefit from project support with development financing to enable them to establish oil palm gardens while keeping some land for food crops.

Beyond the direct target group many more people are expected to benefit indirectly as a result of the employment opportunities created by the smallholder oil palm growers and the nucleus estates such as the one being set up in Buvuma.

Finally, the communities within the targeted area for smallholder oil palm development will indirectly benefit from the broader spill-over economic and social benefits resulting from project interventions targeting the communities in which oil palm growers live, together with the improvements in infrastructure and social services that will accompany the core oil palm investment. As the spill-over effect of oil palm increases, socio-economic activities and services will further develop.

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