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| | Hybrid oil palms bear fruit in western Kenya|
FAO project improves incomes and diets, and may reduce imports of food oil| 24 November 2003, Rome — A cold-tolerant, high-yielding oil palm being promoted by FAO in western Kenya could be a boon to small-scale farmers and industrial producers alike, increasing incomes improving diets, reducing imports of food oil and providing much-needed crop diversification for local sugar growers.Until the FAO project, which began in 1993, the only oil palm variety that grew in cooler African climates was thedura type, which produces fruit with a low volume of pulp and therefore low yields of edible oil.FAO agronomists first noted the dura variety's cold tolerance in the highlands of Tanzania and Cameroon, and seeing its potential, transferred the material to Costa Rica, where it was crossed with precocious high-yielding tenera varieties. The resultant hybrids were returned to several East African countries, including Kenya, for field trials.The results were encouraging. After four years the Kenyan trees had fruited successfully, even under poor husbandry. Hybrid seedlings are now being grown in community nurseries in western Kenya and by the Mumias Sugar Company, the region's largest sugar producer.The climate in western Kenya is well-suited to oil palm cultivation when using cold-tolerant hybrids and may even be better than that of Malaysia, the world's largest producer of palm oil, according to Peter Griffee, FAO Senior Officer for Industrial Crops and one of the key technical officers for the project. "It usually rains in the evening and is sunny during the day," says Griffee. "So while the rainfall is similar to that of Malaysia, there are longer hours of sunshine, which is essential for oil development."
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is one of the largest of the palm species and produces more oil per hectare than any other oil crop. Palm oil is the world's second major vegetable oil, after soybean, with annual production of fresh fruit bunches approaching 100 million metric tonnes per year.The potential of the hybrids is considerable. Fruit can be harvested from three-year-old palms, and the palms reach maturity at about six years, if well tended. Mature palms yield about 20 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hectare a year, or 4 tonnes of oil. The palms' productive life is about 25 years.The cultivation of oil palms has ecological benefits as well."Oil palm is environment-friendly," notes Griffee. "It doesn't compete with native vegetation or food crops in western Kenya. There's no need to turn the soil over every year, so there's less erosion and soil compaction."After the oil has been extracted, empty fruit bunches can be used as mulch to enhance moisture retention, soil nutrient content and soil organic matter.In addition to stabilizing the soil, the trees harbor a great diversity of wildlife.
From imports to local production
At present, Kenya's domestic production of edible oils covers about a third of its annual demand, estimated at around 380 000 metric tonnes. The rest is imported at a cost of around US$140 million a year, making edible oil the country's second most important import after petroleum.The hybrid palm provides opportunities for both small-scale and industrial producers to help alleviate the country's edible oil deficit, while providing local communities with an additional source of income in a region where half the rural population lives in poverty.The oil can be easily extracted by hand or with simple extractors and used...