Oil palm, akin to cocoa, stands as a cash crop brimming with immense potential. It is a plant that offers manifold benefits to humanity, with every part of it holding utility, leaving nothing to waste. This blessing to mankind, however, finds Nigeria merely scratching the surface in terms of its full exploitation. The irony lies in the fact that countries like Malaysia, which initially received the seed of oil palm from Nigeria, have surged ahead, harnessing their advantages to the fullest.
Recent discussions among aviation industry stakeholders have centred on the notion of transitioning to palm oil as an alternative to traditional aviation fuel, primarily in response to the escalating costs associated with conventional aviation fuels. While this idea holds promise, a critical question arises: Do we possess the technological capabilities required to extract palm oil at a scale necessary to fuel aircraft?
Nigeria, richly endowed with abundant natural resources, often falls short in the technology required to fully harness these resources. Even when technology is present, it typically lags behind what is readily available in more advanced nations. Therefore, the notion of utilising palm oil as an alternative aviation fuel might remain a mere aspiration unless we make substantive enhancements to our existing technological infrastructure.
Nigeria has, for generations, been a significant global producer of crude oil. Regrettably, we have maintained a status quo, content with meagre profits from crude oil while neglecting other valuable by-products that could be realised if we were to approach refining seriously. Our refineries lie dormant. We export crude oil only to reimport refined products at exorbitant rates, a situation that leaves the nation and its citizens in a worse-off condition. This underscores the point that possessing natural resources alone is insufficient to achieve sustainable development unless we add value to these resources.
In 2021, Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, implemented a mandatory biodiesel programme called B30, which included 30 per cent palm oil content, as part of the government’s initiative to expand the use of this vegetable oil as an energy source. The keyword here is “mandatory,” emphasising the need for intentionality and action. Meaningful development in any sector necessitates a well-conceived plan with clear-cut objectives.
It is commendable that Nigeria is considering alternative aviation fuel derived from palm oil. However, we must ask whether we have a comprehensive blueprint for this initiative. What technological infrastructure have we put in place? Could this path lead us down a similar route as our crude oil, where we export a resource only to import it back in a refined form?
Countries that make substantial progress tend to do so with clear intentions and well-planned strategies. In a manner similar to Indonesia’s approach, Malaysia, one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, has joined forces with Petronas, a leading oil company, to explore the use of used cooking oil and palm oil waste as sustainable aviation fuel. The memorandum of understanding between these entities aims to investigate the potential of palm-based products and waste materials, such as used cooking oil and palm oil mill effluent, as primary raw materials for local bio-refineries that produce sustainable aviation fuel.
While the aspiration to use palm oil as an alternative aviation fuel is commendable, the path forward must be grounded in science. Nigeria was once a major global palm oil producer. However, we must now take stock and assess our current status. How many large oil palm plantations do we have? What varieties of oil palm do we cultivate? How much oil palm do we produce today? Is it sufficient to meet domestic cooking needs?
Considering the prospect of using palm oil as aviation fuel, we must also ascertain whether we possess the requisite technology. There are many questions that demand answers. This endeavour requires careful consideration and a systematic approach. In this light, a well-considered national policy is vital. This policy should guide our direction and prevent us from inadvertently adopting a model where we export our resources only to reimport them as finished products.
To embark on this journey, Nigeria must invest in research and development (R&D), much like other nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia have done. Our scientists and technology experts must view this as a challenge and embark on research to explore the best approach to this endeavour. We cannot simply wish this alternative into existence; it requires a deliberate, calculated and systematic approach. If we fail to do so, we may face a situation akin to our experiences with crude oil. To this end, stakeholders in the fields of science, technology and innovation should embrace this challenge. The world is rapidly advancing toward alternative energy sources, and Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind.