The palm fruit is the source of both palm oil (extracted from palm fruit) and palm kernel oil (extracted from the fruit seeds). It is the second-most widely produced edible oil, after soybean oil. It is used as cooking oil and to make margarine and shortening, and it is a component of many processed foods. It is used as a replacement for cocoa butter and butterfat, and is an ingredient in ice cream and mayonnaise. About 90% of the palm oil produced finds its way into food products, with industrial uses accounting for the remaining 10%. Palm oil is one of the few vegetable oils relatively high in saturated fats (such as coconut oil) and thus semisolid at room temperature. It is stable at the temperatures used in deep frying, and is used often for fried foods.

Demand for palm oil is rising and is expected to climb further, particularly for use in biodiesel. Biodiesel is promoted as a form of renewable energy that greatly reduces net emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is being touted as a way to decrease the impact of the greenhouse effect and our dependency on oil.

- palm oil products

The African oil palm is native to tropical Africa. It was domesticated in its native range, probably in Nigeria, and moved throughout tropical Africa by humans who practiced shifting agriculture at least 5000 years ago. European explorers discovered the palm in the late 1400's, and distributed it throughout the world during the slave trade period. During the early nineteenth century, the decline of the Atlantic slave trade and Europe's demand for legitimate commerce (trade in material goods rather than human lives!) obliged African states to seek new sources of trade revenue. In the Asante Confederacy, state-owned slaves built large plantations of oil palm trees, while in the neighbouring Kingdom of Dahomey, King Ghezo passed a law in 1856 forbidding his subjects from cutting down oil palms. Palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity by British traders, the oil being used as industrial lubricant for the machines of Britain's ongoing industrial revolution, as well as forming the basis for soaps such as Palmolive. By 1870, palm oil constituted the primary export of West Africa. It continues to be among the primary exports today.

Top 10 Palm Oil Producing Countries
(% of world production)

1. Malaysia (44%)

6. Cote d'Ivoire (1%)

2. Indonesia (36%)

7. Ecuador (1%)

3. Nigeria (6%)

8. Cameroon (1%)

4. Thailand (3%)

9. Congo (1%)

5. Colombia (2%)

10. Ghana (1%)

- various stages of development of the date palm

The palm fruit comes from specific varieties of palm trees. The fruit range in size from <1" to 2" and grow in large bunches of 200-300 at the top of the tree. Fruit bunches are harvested using chisels or hooked knives attached to long poles. Each tree must be visited every 10-15 days as bunches ripen throughout the year.

Oil extraction is a complex process, carried out by large mills that may process up to 60 tons of fruit per hour, or by small scale mills in rural villages that produce only about 1 ton of oil in an 8 hour shift. Oil extraction from fruit follows the same basic steps in either case:

   1. Steam sterilization of bunches  
2. Stripping fruit from bunches
    3. Crushing, digestion, and heating of the fruit
    4. Oil extraction from macerated fruit (by hand, hydraulic or other machine pressing)
    5. Palm oil clarification
    6. Separating fiber from the endocarp
    7. Drying, grading, and cracking of the endocarp
    8. Separating the endocarp from the kernel
    9. Kernel drying and packing
The product of step 5 is termed crude palm oil, which must be refined to remove pigments, free fatty acids, and phospholipids, and to deodorize it. The final product, termed "refined, bleached, deodorized" palm oil is produced thereafter.

- Oil extraction by hand. The image in the middle is similar to the type of extractor that Ndebofa needs.

Efforts to mechanize and improve traditional manual procedures have been undertaken by research bodies, development agencies, and private sector engineering companies, but these activities have been piecemeal and uncoordinated. They have generally concentrated on removing the tedium and drudgery from the mashing or pounding stage (digestion), and improving the efficiency of oil extraction. Small mechanical, motorized /extractors, have been developed in most oil palm cultivating African countries, though they are not always readily available or affordable. It is this situation in which Ndebofa finds himself.



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