TFT's Justin Ford-Robertson reports back from a visit to Nigeria to help support Wilmar to implement its palm oil policy.
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Dark faces draped in bright colours. Military uniforms and guns. A chaotic throng herded through numerous passport checks. Anticipation tinged with uncertainty and excitement. A trickle of bags on a stuttering conveyor. Welcome to Nigeria.
At last a familiar face beaming over the crowd of willing helpers prepared to guide you, for a price. A warm welcome from Gerome Tokpa, Head of TFT West Africa who has already arranged transport to our hotel. My first visit to Nigeria simplified by a frequent visitor who understands how it is here. Just one of the benefits of being a part of the global TFT family.
I was to participate in a meeting of representatives from several Wilmar companies from various African countries. The venue was Calabar, a city in the South East of Nigeria, an hour’s flight from Lagos. This was the first time such a gathering had been convened, trying to help improve mutual understanding of the policy and to share experiences on how to implement it.
Participants represented management and operational staff from plantations, mills and refineries. None of us knew quite what to expect, but any hesitancy soon evaporated once we were underway.
Gerome and Erith Ngatchou, Head of TFT Central Africa, had clearly worked well with our PZ Wilmar hosts to make us all feel welcome. After introductory presentations, we dived straight into discussions of challenges and how to overcome them. The exchanges were excellent, and the feedback at the end of the day made it clear not only had we helped each other in our work, but we had also built new friendships. This was our first objective.
Questions ranged from labour laws to suitable work for pregnant women, firefighting capability to management of scheduled waste, and many more in between. Challenges with traceability, future expansion, smallholders and outgrowers, and exploitation were key topics selected for focus groups. It became clear there are numerous issues – differences in various sustainability standards, and challenges with implementing the policy across operations that include hundreds of smallholders and artisanal mills.
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The second day featured a visit to one of the Wilmar plantations, including viewing old crops and replanting, riparian buffer zones, palm nursery, schools, working housing (old and new buildings) and office/stores.
The armed security personnel accompanying us highlighted one of the issues, but others included low productivity and OER from old (Dura; unimproved) palm trees, and the uncertain weather (no rain for 3 months causing failure of recent replanting).
On the way back I reflected on all the positive energy shared during the workshop, seeking solutions and ways to implement an ambitious policy in a challenging context.
For sure there is still ground to cover but I now feel even more confident than before that it is achievable when teams are empowered to do so. Gerome and Erith together with the Wilmar teams have already planned concrete actions and follow up visits on the ground and another workshop later on this year. I already look forward to my next trip to Africa.