Spaces in Flux: Palm Oil


Written By: Sidi Lemine

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After our flight landed in Lagos at 5.05am, we managed to get out of the airport and find our Nigerian partner with unexpected ease. We hopped in a car, and blissfully avoided morning traffic into the Capital by heading straight North – to Ibadan, in Oyo State.

Oyo is the most prosperous inland state in Nigeria. It is made of rolling hills and fertile fields yielding a variety of cash crops, and its infrastructures have been slowly but steadily developing for decades. After arriving in Ibadan and checking into the Premier Hotel we got back in the car, and on the road, towards our first ethnography.

The road was in good state, until we left it for the dirt track leading to the small group of villages called Ikereku. At that junction, a group of heavily armed policemen stopped us to check the real reason we were in the car.

After a slightly awkward repetition of the same questions and answers, it transpired that they were afraid we were being kidnapped, as they had never seen a European heading that way out of their own volition. It hit us then how very rarely do we do research in the more remote parts of the developing (or even the developed) world.

Later in the day, after interviewing several family members, we got to know more of the village better. In particular, the women (and few men) who produce palm oil by hand from the jointly-owned palm trees of the village. We learnt that groups of women making palm oil is far from an unusual scene in Nigeria.

A collection of families gathered amongst the palm oil production site.
A collection of families gathered amongst the palm oil production site.

Indeed palm oil production is a major source of income for both individual households and the economy as a whole. Domestic Palm Oil production in Nigeria is nearly 900,000 tons and 80% of this is made by several million smallholders harvesting usually just a few trees using traditional methods. What we were witnessing was a vital and interesting window into one of the pillars of the Nigerian economic story.

The process itself is labour intensive, taking about 48 hours to make 20 litres of palm oil.  The women share the oil according to the amount of work each put in each week, and the finished product is sold in 20 litres plastic jerry cans at the weekly market for around 1000 Nairas (about £4). Buyers usually come from Ibadan, where its value will have already doubled, and often be pooled to be sold in bulk in Lagos for twice as much again.

Mama Comfort siphons off the dredges for the last stage in the production.
Mama Comfort siphons off the dredges for the last stage in the production.

On both a micro and a macro-economic scale what this process can tell us is incredibly revealing.

On a micro-level: Palm Oil production is run almost entirely by women. Men sometimes do the initial harvesting (which involves climbing trees to cut the fruit down) and young people are sometimes also employed, but it is mostly women who process the product and often also sell it at the local market. This brings in a much needed source of income into the household and also gives women a certain amount of economic autonomy.

This tells us that even at the poorest level of Nigerian society, people are producing a surplus, they have spending power beyond subsistence. Beyond this the fact that many Nigerian women have access to their own sources of income and are the ones who get to decide how this money gets spent should be a watch out for brands who might otherwise focus only on those who participate in the more formal male dominated labour market as being the only ones with disposable income and spending power.

We see this as a sign of the times, as infrastructures in many parts of the world reach a critical point where they can truly connect and empower the vast amounts of agrarian populations left behind, without the need to go through large-scale private or public structures which would inevitably absorb some of the added value.

Back on the ground again we saw this for ourselves in how the women we spoke to in our more formal research project were spending their money and making choices between the different options presented by both local and global brands.

What we witnessed during and around the research project is a high level of brand awareness, even in categories that are still difficult to access. Consumers here share the same impressions and preferences when it comes to choosing the best for themselves and their families, and are often willing to compromise on quantity rather than quality.

Funke Olushula carrying out a regular shop for household brands at the local store.
Funke Olushula carrying out a regular shop for household brands at the local store.

Global brands, who enjoy the halo of respectability given by time, widespread acceptance and strong media presence, are preferred to the many new brands vying to close this gap in market. The strongest worry in this market, as in many others, is about dangerous consumable goods, made with inappropriate formulations. This is true of local brands, but even more so of Chinese imports.

The desire to access better, safer, more efficient products, in packagings that express status and premiumness, is entirely the same as everywhere else. The context in which these may (or may not) be found is still very different – but this difference is fading more each day.

Through the methods and outputs that lie at the heart of BAMM’s approach, we are constantly driven to journey ever further from the business centers of the world. This is obviously why we are in this business: a hunger to discover, to understand, to see more. As roads get better in Nigeria, as the power grid stabilises in Bolivia, as standards of living rise in the furthest corners of China, opportunities for brands are becoming more and more apparent. Much ink has been spilled about the emerging middle class of the world, and now we are looking at the next wave of consumers pulling themselves out of a subsistence economy and into the global consumer market.

This is a critically important global demographic that, for the next two decades, will be entirely out of reach of focus group facilities, and for whom little quantitative data exists to compare with. It means we will have to be nimble, we will have to be humble, and we will have to re-think everything we know, and how we do everything.

We couldn’t be more excited about it, and we hope you are too.

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