Most of Nigeria has the perfect climate for growing coconuts and yet it imports 70% of the popular fruit, which is widely used as a snack, a drink and to make everything from oil to cosmetics. With demand for coconuts increasing both domestically and around the world, plans are now afoot to make Nigeria self-sufficient in coconuts.
In the neighbourhood of Isolo in the heart of Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos, Toyin Kappo-Kolawole runs a small factory processing coconuts into milk, water, flour and snacks.
She started her business, De-Cribbs Cocogry Coconut, in 2018, sourcing the coconuts from the coastal town of Badagry, the centre of the country’s coconut industry.
As production expanded, she struggled to find enough coconuts in Nigeria and had to import the fruit from Ghana.
“It makes my product expensive. That means I’m losing customers,” she says.
Ms Kappo-Kolawole is among a growing number of entrepreneurs who have been attracted to the industry.
Everything from the husk to the flesh can be processed into a wide range of products – food, beverages, cosmetics, textiles, charcoal and even soil and energy.
Global demand for coconut-based products has risen steadily since the early 2000s.
As a result, Nigeria has seen a surge in processors entering the industry, keen to take advantage of its vast opportunities.
Demand for products remains stable even during difficult economic periods. This meant that when global supply was low in 2021, the average price of coconut oil soared by 62%, reaching $1,636 (£1,370) per tonne.
Last month Nigeria launched a coconut planting initiative in Badagry as part of a drive to promote the fruit as a cash crop.
It’s part of a wider plan led by the National Coconut Producers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria (Nacoppman) to help the country become self-sufficient.
Last year, Nigeria imported more than 500,000 tonnes of coconuts to process into products such as oils, food and beverages, official figures show.
I visited a farm a mere two-hour drive from the capital Abuja to see how a couple – Ray Davies and her husband, retired army Major General John Davies – branched out into coconut farming.
It was huge, set on 150 hectares of land with the dry rocky hills characteristic of the region forming a wall of mounds in the distance. But the land was covered with green shoots – the beginnings of 4,000 coconut trees.
The couple set up the farm six years ago, largely growing fruit and vegetables including lemons, bananas and soursop. However in 2021, they added coconuts to the mix, planting seedlings on 20 hectares of land.
With many manufacturers forced to import the fruit from countries such as Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast, farmers like the Davies hope to fill this gap.
“We don’t have enough to service our own industries. There’s a market for it here,” Ms Davies says.
Nacoppman President Nma Okoroji says that people are increasingly seeing coconuts as a cash crop.
“It’s a huge money-spinner for the economy. Coconuts can increase the revenue of the country drastically,” she says.
“We have the arable land. We have the manpower. We have the favourable weather to plant and get the best out of it. So we should be exporting instead of importing,” Ms Okoroji adds.
Ms Okoroji is working on a government-supported initiative, known as Coconut Sufficiency in Nigeria (Cosin), which aims to plant 10,000 hectares of coconut trees in most of Nigeria’s 36 states by 2027 in order to boost the domestic supply.
A major challenge facing farmers is the ability to access high-quality seedlings to help boost annual yields once the trees fruit.
The best for commercial farming is the Hybrid tree – a crossbreed of the indigenous West African Tall and the Dwarf which originates from Asia.
The Hybrid fruits in four to five years, slower than the Dwarf which fruits in two-and-a-half to three years, but the Hybrid has been specifically developed by researchers for commercial farming.
Abiodun Oyelekan, who runs a two-and-a-half-hectare farm in Badagry, says it is important to use Hybrid seeds due to their “very high” annual yield. However, at around $6 per seed they remain out of reach for many farmers.
“If you want to [replace] what you have planted before, you may you have to invest more so you need financial support,” Mr Oyelekan says.
This makes it difficult for many smallholder farmers like Mr Oyelekan to ramp up production.
Coconut factories need power
The Lagos state government’s Coconut Development Authority (Lascoda) is tasked with helping the coconut sector to boost productivity and to become more commercial.
Lascoda general manager Dapo Olakulehin says the state is the biggest producer of coconuts in the country, but production is struggling to keep up with manufacturers’ needs because there has been a surge in processing over the past 10 to 15 years.
“In the last three years, when we saw the surge, we have been encouraging a lot of people to go into cultivation to meet the processing need. The result of this effort will start showing in the next four, five years when the trees are fruiting.”
Plantations owned by Lascoda are used to produce seedlings to distribute among farmers within the region.
Last year they handed out 200,000 free seedlings to coconut producers, but resources are limited. This year they can only offer 80,000 seedlings. This means that coconut processors will continue to import the fruit for now.
The government sees the growth of the industry as a priority in order to tackle high rates of unemployment, and to reduce Nigeria’s reliance on oil exports as a foreign currency earner, says Kaura Arimiye, a senior official in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.
“Beyond becoming sufficient in coconut production and consumption, we also want to get to the international market,” Mr Arimiye adds.
Ebun Feludu – the founder ofJAM The Coconut Food Company, whichmakes premium products from the fruit, including snacks, oil, cosmetics, and charcoal – believes that for the government to achieve its objective it needs to improve basic infrastructure.
Nigeria is notorious for power cuts, and roads are not good either.
Ms Feludu says that she rarely has electricity at her factory in Lagos’ Ajah suburb.
“I think it’s fantastic that the government is really pushing for non-oil exports. But what will help is [addressing] these issues of power and roads, and the costs of getting our products to international markets,” she says.