The oil palm (Elæis guineensis Jacq) originates from the gulf of Guinea, where it grows spontaneously in the wild. Palm oil and kernel oil are two products from oil palm with a range of uses in both the cottage and downstream industries and almost all the oil palm by-products are known to be utilized. The hybrid tenera type produces the highest oil yield, up to eight times higher than other vegetable oil crops like soybean, sunflower or rapeseed.
For centuries, farmers in the forest zone of Cameroon have been harvesting wild oil palm groves with the purpose of producing palm oil, kernel oil and palm wine. Some farmers collected oil palm seedlings (of dura type) that germinated spontaneously in the forest to plant them in their farmland. It is only in the late 1970s that the government of Cameroon came up with a policy to develop the smallholder oil palm sector with some funding assistance from the World Bank. The fund controlled by Fonader (National Fund for Agriculture and Rural Development) provided cash to CDC, Socapalm and Pamol companies; these were the three agro-industrial companies selected by the government to develop 2 to 5 ha of oil palm plantations for land owners who met the selection criteria for the project. The companies were responsible for developing these plantations with quality planting material, the timely supply of inputs and permanent technical advice. In return, smallholders were supposed to supply their harvested fresh fruit bunches (FFB) to the agro-industries in order to pay back the development cost. Between 1978 and 1990, a total area of 35 000 ha of oil palm plantations were developed for oil palm smallholders. After the collapse of Fonader in the early 1990s, the financial support of the smallholder oil palm sector was left in the hands of agro-industries only. With the hit of the economic crisis, the devaluation of the Franc CFA and the structural adjustment program instituted by the international monetary fund (IMF), such agro-industries were no longer able to provide the necessary assistance to smallholders.
Despite the favorable agro-ecological conditions of the country, Cameroon is only sitting at 13th world rank in terms of oil production, with a total production of 230 000 t of crude palm oil (CPO) from 190 000 ha exploited by both agro-industries and small and medium holdings. Two thirds of this area are in the hands of individuals but they provide only half of the total production because of very low oil yields. Such low yields are not restricted to the non-industrial sector only. For various reasons companies like CDC and Pamol cannot produce more than 2 t CPO/ha/yr. In Indonesia, smallholders reach much better yields (3 to 3.5 t CPO/ha/yr) with guaranteed purchase ensured by agro-industries.
Cameroon has a huge domestic and sub-regional market for crude palm oil, but the country is still a net importer of CPO (50 000 t in 2011). Cameroonians consume red palm oil of which 30% is produced by artisanal mills. The advantages of these oil palm smallholdings are numerous, since they can guarantee producers a stable income, they foster land tenure security and they strengthen the monetization of the rural areas, thus generating development. The present study aims at assessing the sector with special emphasis on its present strengths and weaknesses and it proposes ways to overcome/solve the problems.