Oil Women of Akwa Ibom State
The red palm oil is a common ingredient in the cooking of almost every type of dish prepared in Nigeria. It is never missing in the kitchen of every Nigerian, and maybe every African. This edible vegetable oil is conspicuously displayed for sale in the African markets and shops in bottles and plastic containers. When we see them, we hardly think of the source and how is came to the market.
The palm oil, after many years are still processed by hand. Only a few large scale oil processing companies are in production of this veritable source of oil for cooking in Nigeria. Akwa Ibom state, a coastal state in south eastern Nigeria is one of the areas in Nigeria where oil in large quantities are produced. This processing is a common vocation and trade of the women of Akwa Ibom State.
It is an area with an abundance of diverse agricultural products. Over 85% of the indigenes live in the rural areas and almost 90% of these are engaged in one form of agricultural activity or the other. It is also one of the areas where the oil palm tree (Elaeis Guinaensis) thrives. It is a predominant feature in the landscape of this area. There are different species widely spread throughout the southern part of Nigeria. It is of economic value to the indigenes of this area and most commonly cultivated for its commercial benefit. The oil palm tree is an economic crop highly values by its owners whether in plantations or simply cultivated in small numbers. Oil palm trees are most commonly cultivated and processed for its oil (edible), soap, mat, fiber etc.
The ownership of the oil palm tree by the people of Akwa Ibom is highly regarded due to its cash crop value. People who own oil palm trees treasure them accordingly. Though there were quite a number of large plantations in the 60s and 70s, most of these have been run down or no more in production. However it is commendable that a few entrepreneurs and government agency have delved into oil palm plantation and oil processing, but the bulk of the oil produced in this state is still predominantly produced by the rural dwellers, the women.
In view of the above, small scale oil palm owners depend on their small farm cultivations to supplement the large vegetable oil market locally and nationally, too. This method of vegetable oil processing is still basically manual, basically by hand.
The processing of the fruits into vegetable oil is most commonly carried out by women. It begins with harvesting the ripe fruits which grows in clusters weighing between 20-30 Kilogrammes. The women work communally in groups of 2 or 3 either from either a single family or with neighbours or even paid helps. 10-20 bunches of ripe fruit from the palm tree are cut and gathered. The harvested fruits are then cut into smaller clusters and sprinkled with water, and then, covered with thick jute bags or banana leaves to aid fermentation and make it easy for the seeds to be picked easily from its spiky stalks.
Two or three days after, the seeds are picked, washed and packed in to iron drums and boiled. This process is tedious. Fire kindled from gathered fire-wood is usually prepared a night before and at intervals, rekindled to keep the fire cooking constantly hot. As early as 4 or 5 a.m. the boiled seeds whose fleshy pericarp has become soft and tender are scooped with a small basket or sieve bowl into an earth dug-out mortar, which has been fitted with a metal drum. The boiled seeds are then pounded with a wooden pestle to separate the fleshy pericarp from its hard kernel seeds.
The next stage involves scooping this mixture onto a flat trough or onto the ground which had been covered with banana leaves. The kernel seeds are then separated from the fibrous mash. This is then scooped into a cylindrical hollow press. The wrench is then turned slowly and gradually, as this is being done, the extracted oil from the holes in the press is guided through a duct at the bottom of the press into a large bowl, trough or container. This process is carried out several times until oil is drained from the marshy mixture.
The next stage is carefully draining the oil into containers; in doing so, the women are careful not to allow dirt, fiber or other foreign matter into the oil. The finished product if in large quantity may be further stored in larger metal drums awaiting buyers who come to buy them off these women and transported to other towns. If the oil is not so large in quantity they are then taken to the local market for sale; either way, the Akwa Ibom woman earns her money. Though the process is tedious, the oil is top quality if processed by an experienced producer.
I then ask; with government at the state and local levels, asking people to go back to agriculture, what are they doing to empower these women to own their own joint or small-scale oil processing oil mills? What impact would be, if they look at this vocation common to her people?