The Nile and PAMOL Plantations share many similarities.
The Nile is the longest River in the world. The common belief is that there would be no Egypt if there was no Nile. Egypt, a Northern African nation, with extremely rich historical and religious antecedents, derives most of its economic potentials, viz; touristic, agricultural and navigational from this river.
Similarly, Ndian, the second biggest Division in terms of land mass in the Southwest Region of Cameroon has, for about a century, almost solely depended on PAMOL Plantations for its very sustainability. That is not all. If countries like Malaysia and Indonesia rank today as the world’s largest producers of oil palm, it is, thanks largely to modern research inputs that PAMOL scientists generated and put at the disposal of these Asian Tigers.
Plus, besides providing crucial schooling and healthcare delivery needs to teeming masses, PAMOL has, of recent, been playing another crucial determining, nay, pivotal nation building role, by investing massively in the Bakassi Peninsula, light years after the disputed territory was ceded back to Cameroon, courtesy of a United Nations intervention.
The Rambler was in Ndian last week, and was marveled at what contribution PAMOL is making to the national economy, the many daunting odds notwithstanding. We talked to three key members of that establishment, namely, Agbortoko Baye, Plantations Manager, Nkiambou Charles M., Technical Manager and Kamadje Albert, Secretary General.
How is the pet Ekondo Nene Palm Extension Project faring? How many hectares are under cultivation here?
We took off with the project in 2009 and started development project in Ekondo Nene with the intension of operating some 3000 hectares of land there. We so far have done 1000 hectares in Ekondo Nene where some 555 hectares are developed by PAMOL and the rest of it is being developed by a scheme called PAMOL Small Holders Venture. Of these 555 hectares which PAMOL started with, so far 180 of them are in production. That production capacity is over eight tons of Fresh Fruits Bunches, FFB, which means that by the close of the year, we are supposed to have about 180 tons of FFB. There are prospects that Ekondo Nene will do quite well because the tons produced per hectare is very high; it is a fertile area. Ekondo Nene alone has about 160 workers there who are living in social houses constructed by PAMOL. PAMOL has been able to provide them with water and a good school for their children.
You just mentioned a Small Holder Venture. How does it integrate with PAMOL’s main stream production?
The PAMOL Small Holder’s Scheme is a joint venture between a small holder and PAMOL, where PAMOL has decided to give part of their land in Ekondo Nene for small holders to open their plantations there. Eventually the area was felled and prepared by PAMOL and given out to small holders who are now working on it. PAMOL provides seedlings, while the small holders plant and maintain their small plantations which are divided into 10 hectares each, until they come to production stage. It is done with the agreement that all the fresh fruits bunches produced in such land will be sold to the company at the current prices of FFB. The agreement also stipulates that the company will allow the smallholder farm on the land for 25 years and thereafter they can decide to renew the contract. When the smallholder fails to supply its fruits to the company or in case of any deviation from the contract by the holder, PAMOL may decide to recover her land and property.
At one point PAMOL went all out to make its impact felt on the Bakassi Peninsular. The company was, by and large also creating Government’s impact here. Has it been a worthy investment, do you think?
PAMOL decided in 2015 to begin a project in Bakassi. This project was started with the sole intension of populating the Bakassi Peninsular, given that it was a war torn area and many people had gone away but for some few Nigerians who were still living there. And since agriculture and particularly plantation is labour intensive, the state saw it as one of the ways by which it could better populate the area. That is why the state instructed PAMOL to establish a plantation there, so that it could bring back indigenous people to the area.
So far, the object of the Government to populate the place is being met, though not at a hundred percent rate. So far, PAMOL has done already some 345 hectares there in Mussongi Selle and in Etiba- Nyanga and the area is gradually being populated. When we started the project in 2015 in Mussongi Selle and moved to Ediba–Nyanga, in 2016, we were counting about 300 workers present and working for the company. But now, the working population has dropped to about 75, given that the company had to slow down operations since Government funding was not coming. The project was sponsored by the Government… one billion was made available for its take off.
Honestly, the life of the people in Bakassi where PAMOL is found, has greatly changed; it is changing and will continue to change for the better. Initially, the place was just a bush area with no social amenities. But since 2015, PAMOL has succeeded in building houses there and we have accommodated our workers who now work for us and earn enough money for their upkeep.
Trade is fast developing there and the council is building the market structure where a frontier market between Cameroon and Nigeria is taking place. The most important thing I want to tell you is that with the presence of PAMOL there, the Cameroonian population is fast growing. Consequently, the naira is being gradually replaced by the Cameroon FCFA. That tells you that we are into effective occupation of the area. We already have more than 180 rooms here, in which our workers live. These workers are not only coming from afar but some of them are villagers who have moved from their homes and have settled in the area and are working for PAMOL.
What has become of the rubber component of PAMOL? The company operated an estate in Bai…
Bai Estate runs what is known as dual culture; which means that it produces both rubber and oil palm fruits. Before now, Bai Estate was all into rubber production. When rubber prices fell in the market and the crop was no longer cost effective in production, the company decided to replace part of the rubber plantations with palms which is ever cost generating. This was in 1995 and 1986. But so far now we still have 580 hectares which produces 1000 tones of rubber annually and which we sell to the Cameroon Development Corporation, CDC, as a smallholder. In fact, we are a small holder to CDC because they run very large rubber plantations and they equally have a factory where they process it. So, when we produce our rubber from the 580 hectares of land that we have in Bai Estate, we sell to the CDC.
Have you not considered setting up your own rubber factory?
We can do that, but it will not be very productive because it will be very expensive for us to run a factory with a small amount of rubber. Now that we are beginning to cut the old palms in Bai Estate, we wish to regenerate it by planting rubber. In due course, if our production increases, we may then decide to put up a rubber factory so that it won’t be more expensive to run than selling the crop to the CDC.
Is PAMOL, like other related companies facing the problem of crop theft? If so, how are you grappling with the menace?
Generally, we incur quite some losses from theft from our neighbouring villages and that is why in our company we have a security unit known as the fruits guards, who run around to ensure and prevent our crops, be it rubber or palm from being stolen. Also, we do that with the assistance of “anti gangs” which have been constituted by villages. We pay the villages some compensation every month for helping us to fight crop theft. We also use the administration and law enforcement officers a lot to fight the thieves.
Regarding working with villagers as security, they are very sincere in handing over to us villagers who steal company crops and we have registered lots of successes from that and that is why we are continually using and paying them. In fact, what we are interested in is taking preventive measures that are stopping the fruits from reaching the villages in the first place. That is why the villages have set up vigilate groups to question every crop that gets into the villages and with that only those who harvest from their farms move it to the village. Any crop of doubtful nature, the village will intercept it and ask us to come verify if it belongs to us. Though this has not stopped the theft, it has greatly and considerably reduced palm theft.
Given that our seedlings are sold to other farmers, we differentiate our bunches from them during production; that is, especially during harvesting. We do this in two ways. When we harvest our bunches, you would notice that they are nudgedV, that identifies that it is coming from PAMOL while those of smallholders have a long stuck. One thing we discovered is that when people steal our crop they don’t carry it with bunches, so, it even makes it difficult to identify when it is taken out of the farms. That is why we place our security at the periphery of our farms to ensure that they don’t steal and carry the crops into the villages.
What is the work force of PAMOL? What advantages are available to your workers that may not be enjoyed at other agro industrial enterprises?
PAMOL has a work force of about 3000 employees, ranging from Category 2 to 12. They include nurses, mill workers, harvesters, drivers, managers and supervisors. In fact, our agro industry is the only one that does not discriminate when it comes to employment. As far as I am concerned, the advantages PAMOL workers enjoy are many. Firstly, they don’t pay for their accommodation. It is given to them free of charge, including water and light bills. Plus, PAMOL houses are more modernized than others elsewhere. Also, hospital bills in the hospital to workers are almost free. They consult free of charge and do not pay for hospital bills because the presence of the hospital there is to make sure that workers are healthy for better productivity. The only thing they do is to buy their own drugs.
How did your company welcome the imminent tarring of the Kumba Ekondo-Titi road?
It fact, the news was greatly relieling to us, knowing as it were how we suffer on that road. We are very happy with Government decision to tar the road. It’s going to ease transportation of our produce. Because before now, especially during the rainy season, we had problems sending our produce to the market and that made us not to be competitive enough as compared to others like CDC and SOCAPALM that are in areas where the roads are more pliable. Secondly, we had difficulty of transporting our spares from Douala down to our base where we have to carry out maintenance activities given that it is usually during the rainy season that we have little production, hence, the best time to do maintenances of equipment. When the roads are so bad and equipment become difficult to transport because of bad roads, we end up not doing the best maintenance and this only makes the factory not to function in its most appropriate form when the peak season arrives.
On the account of extremely bad roads, has PAMOL often considered resorting to using river craft for transporting materials and produce as obtained in yesteryears?
The roads now are bad but we are not cut off. When they are cut off and we have no way to operate, we refer to river transport. River transport is extremely expensive to manage and that is why we think the road coming to us is going to solve and reduce our cost of production to ways such that we can be competitive.
Unlike other sister corporations, PAMOL runs a full fledged hospital which benefits not only her workers. How has the company been able to sustain this component over the decades?
Truly, the hospital is the biggest in this Division with the best services. Initially, the hospital was created in 1956 to cater for the welfare of the workers but today it’s a normal hospital open to everyone. The hospital is run by the company and it has a good work team with well and professionally trained medical doctors. But apart of that the hospital has some challenges like infrastructure. Firstly, it was created when the work force of the company was very small. Today the work force of the company has grown in geometric proportions. Consequently, the hospital requires radical upgrading. It requires apparatuses like incubators for babies born prematurely. It requires oxygen and other relevant innovations. The lack of these components has caused a lot of deaths, especially to new born babies who hardly survive even when transferred to Kumba because of bad roads and long distance.
Is your company still relying on the old, almost anachronistic milling or PAMOL has acquired modern oil mills?
Actually, PAMOL has two functional mills for now, which were all commissioned in 1967 and 1968 in Lobe and Ndain respectively. These mills at the time of commissioning had an operating capacity of 15 metric tons and you will agree with me that from 1967 to date is 50 years, and that anything 50 is totally obsolete. Trying to survive with old equipment in a modern world is some of the challenges that PAMOL is facing. We have just gone through a process of rehabilitation where we have done a lot of work by expanding the plantations, replanting and applying fertilizers which had been abandoned for some time and encouraging the smallholders to expand and produce more crops and the objective of all this work was to ensure that we produce more crops and to transport it into oil. At the tail end, there was also a plan to acquire a new mill which would assist in the transformation of these expected crops. But unfortunately, the procedure of getting the funds for the new mill has been a big battle. Up to now, we are still sourcing for the funds to acquire the new mill. To meet up production with a mill processing more than its initial capacity created to handle, means that the machines and the labourers at the mill are overworked. The current factories cannot cope with current production of available crop. Consequently, you call on workers to put in extra hours and be more committed to ensuring that the old machines keep performing.
From your stock of palm kernels has PAMOL has, considered producing palm kernel cooking oil? Or you lack the competence?
From the kernels we have, what PAMOL produces now is kernel oil and not palm kernel cooking oil. The competence to produce kernel cooking oil is there, but actually, it is our wish that we can diversify… like have a soap factory, a refinery, margarine factory and all those related down stream operations which are associated with the palm oil industry. But as I earlier mentioned, the only problem is at the level of our finances to get the mother company operational which is the palm oil mill itself.
PAMOL was once into the manufacturing of soap. Is it still the case? If so, what economic gain could the company be deriving from this component?
Yes, PAMOL acquired a small unit to transform an average amount of 1000 kg of soap, which we contracted to a distributor because one of the major problems in the soap industry is to actually get the market. So we contracted it to a distributor who is running it on our behalf. Economical gain of these soap production is just an additional source of income to the company.
How about producing bleached palm oil?
Producing bleached oil is a good idea because people bleach the oil they buy from us but like I earlier said, this goes back to what I called downstream operations associated with the palm oil factory. The machines to produce all these needed things are not there but some day we will get there.
How is PAMOL coping with massive importation of cheaper palm oil from other oil production countries like Malaysia, Indonesia…?
PAMOL has three main companies they supply oil to [AZUR, MAYA and CCA] and the quantity and prices of oil supplied to any of them is determined by the Government. Naturally, the tones of oil needed to satisfy the country’s demand cannot be produced by PAMOL, therefore, there is need for some importation, but our worry is the manner in which such oils are imported. Because most often they are imported duty free and often land here in cheaper prices than current prices in Cameroon. Hence, the importers are temped to import excessively because it is cheaper, thereby hindering the sales of locally produced palm oil. To fight the massive importation of oil, especially refined oil, we were compelled to reduce our prices. This happened two to three years ago when there was massive importation of very cheap oil. There was a lot of refined oil in the country; consequently our local buyers of crude oil who further refine it, could not buy because they too did not have the market. Therefore, we too could not sell. The effect was such that all our storage facilities were full and we had to stop some factory production, with the only option being to reduce the price. Consequently, we incurred huge losses.
What role has the Government been playing in keeping the company afloat in the face of very intervening competitive international interests and other variables?
Actually, there is a great burden at the level of the Ministry of Commerce, which is mandated to regulate all of this. But I want to believe that at times, there is some bad faith from those executing those policies. Of course, when there is excessive oil in the market, we find it difficult to sell; meanwhile we are not allowed to export. After the Government noticed the disaster caused some three years ago, they took some measures to ensure that the company stayed afloat. Firstly, they immediately stopped the excess importation of oil, because there were still some consignments to arrive. Also, there are controls in the market to check illegal sale of palm oil; so all this is helping us maintain our place in the national market.
Have the declared ghost towns in Anglophone Cameroon affected Ndian, PAMOL in any way?
No, it has not. Not at all. In fact, in this company, we don’t know of any thing like that. All of our workers answer present at their job sites every working day except those who are sick or those on leave. At times we are surprised to hear that there is “kontri Sunday” say in kumba and that places are closed. Here, we don’t feel any of such things but for schools which were somehow destabilized.
How are schools in this area preparing for this new academic year?
Normally the last school year was blank by this somewhat Anglophone crisis. But this year, some kind of machinery has been put in place to have a smooth start to end of academic year. We carried out a sensitization campaign and I saw some parents crying. They have all assured us that their children won’t be left at home. We have learned a very bitter lesson, so we have talked with parents and all stakeholders involved. PAMOL schools are ready to open their doors come September 4. The consequences of a blank school year have been disastrous; I mean, it was criminal to have even let that happen.
Dr. Etta Culbertson Enow,
Agronomist and genetist at PAMOL research department
Is PAMOL rejuvenating its palm plantations?
Yes, PAMOL is doing that because the company has majority of her plantations that are old and we have to rejuvenate them by felling palm trees that have gone through their youthful life span to replace them with new generations with better yields. Agronomically, 25 years life span for a palm tree is enough for us to reap all economic benefits from a tree. After that you can fell and replant.
Before now, PAMOL used to generate research findings and from which foreign partners benefitted. Is it still the case now? How many countries still depend on PAMOL for post research achievements?
Yes research in PAMOL is continuing. It has never stopped and it is continuing, following the methods put in place by the former owners of PAMOL, UNILEVER. In fact, it is so serious and important that in our research, we have two schools; French and English. Presently, we are continuing with the material and we are able to multiply our seeds production palms by selecting the top percent, crossing them to produce progenies of high yielding materials to be used for seed production. These high yielding materials are used to produce between 17 and 21 fresh fruits bunches per year in a single palm. PAMOL before and even now, is exporting seeds. PAMOL in the days of UNILEVER had their base in the UK and then seeds were exported to many countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria amongst many other African nations.
Even Brazil has some of our materials. It was because the materials were high yielding that they were solicited by so many countries. The potentials of yesteryears high yielding materials is still here and presently we have a lot of demand for our seeds not only from commercial plantations but from research units in Indonesia and Malaysia and even India requesting to have our seeds so they can open their own research departments to produce seeds. In fact, we have even signed a convention with one multi national company in Indonesia for genetic material transfer between the two countries and for testing our materials in Indonesia. This will help us capture the materials in Indonesia for seeds sales. We have others to dispatch to Nigeria and Gabon.
Talking about research, even before the African Union started propagating biological as opposed to chemical pests control, PAMOL had successfully researched on the leaf miner beetle, adapting in the process, biological as opposed to toxic chemical methods of fighting pests destructive to oil palm…
Some two major pests exist. That is insects that are pest to the palms and insects that are beneficial to the palms trees. In fact, the principle of pollination in Malaysia was found here in Pamol where the pollination weevil was founded. This is what has revitalized the high production in Indonesia and made them to even become the main leaders in palm oil production in the world. The study of the pollination weevils was conducted here in PAMOL and the weevils later taken to Indonesia. They were inundated in the field and they started multiplying pollination and Malaysia started having fruits with good bunches. Before then, the weevils were not there and the bunches in Malaysia had very little seeds and the only way to improve on the seed situation was to do an assisted pollination. This assisted pollination is a type of pollination whereby, human beings pollinate the flowers of the trees themselves.
As concerns insect pests, you mention the leaf miner beetle and this is the type of pest that mines into the palm trees and renders the leaves dry such that they look like they have been burnt by fire. It is a very serious pest that can cost up to 70 percent damage in oil palm plantations. Studies were initiated here in Cameroon by some researchers in the 80s and they realized that at that time PAMOL was using biological ways to control the leaf miner and other area spray on the plantations to control the leaf miner pest. From studies carried out, we found out that leaf miner has a natural enemy which is an ant called cramastogasta ants. These ants feed on the lava of the leaf miner and destroy them. So whenever we have leaf miner mounds on the leaves, the ants come and feed on the lava, thereby eradicating them naturally. This study was carried out and we have a systematic procedure that we are still following. We have succeeded because we have inundated the ants on our palms and we have them living on the palms, so the problem of leaf miner has been dealt with. But we have not stopped at that level as we continue to do census of leaf miners in our fields to see where they have built up so that we can do manual eradication or spontaneous chemical eradication. So far, we have had no cases of the leaf miner to worry about. There are two common pests you will find in a mature palm plantation the leaf miner which we are already eradicating and the meagle caterpillar which in our plantation is beyond economic injury level. We are lucky we don’t have others like the Rhinoceros beetles which are also very dangerous.
Interviewed by Ngende Esther Boh & Charlie Ndi Chia