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Oil palm production in Uganda’s Ssese Islands takes a hit as climate crisis worsens

Aside from fishing, oil palm cultivation has always been a major economic activity for communities in the Ssese Islands.

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A farmer collecting oil plam fruits from a farm in the Ssese Islands. Yields have plummeted due to the effects of climate change. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke
A farmer collecting oil plam fruits from a farm in the Ssese Islands. Yields have plummeted due to the effects of climate change. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke

By Gilbert Mwijuke

As global warming takes its toll on rainfall patterns, oil palm production in Uganda’s Ssese Islands is taking a hit due to fewer days of rainfall and elongated dry seasons.

Data from Kalangala Oil Palm Growers Trust (KOPGT) – the sole association of oil palm growers in the Ssese Islands – indicates that production of oil palm in the 84-island archipelago has plummeted significantly, falling from 63.1 million tonnes at peak production in 2019 to 53.9 million tonnes in 2022. 

Since commercial production started in the country in the early 2000s, these tropical islands, which are located some 51 kilometres south of Entebbe, have been churning out at least 50 million tonnes of crude oil palm per year thanks to the islands’ humid tropical climate that’s favourable for the best production levels.

In terms of annual revenues, the oil palm industry in the Ssese Islands is worth well over Ush40 billion, employing 2,063 smallholder famers directly and more than 6,000 individuals indirectly, according to Joel Kigundu, a field extension officer working with KOPGT. 

Aside from fishing, oil palm cultivation has always been a major economic activity for communities in the Ssese Islands. The islands currently boast more than 12,000 hectares of oil palm plantations, which translates to “over 90 per cent” of all the plantations in Uganda, Mr Kigundu said. More than half of the plantations are owned Bidco, a Kenyan cooking oil producing company.

“Climate change has mostly affected our production due to prolonged dry seasons,” Mr Kigundu told The EastAfrican. “We used to have three months-long dry seasons but now we get dry seasons that run for between four to five months. This has negatively affected yields because the formation of fresh oil palm fruits requires a lot of water.”

An oil palm farm in the Ssese Islands. Yields have plummted due to the affects of climate change. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke
An oil palm farm in the Ssese Islands. Yields have plummeted due to the affects of climate change. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke

Mr Kigundu says the prolonged dry spells have led to uneven ripening of fruits and a surge of diseases such as fusarium wilt and pests such as rhinchosorus.

“The rhinchosorus pests used to be very rare here but now they have become very common because they thrive in dry seasons,” Mr Kigundu said.

But new farm management approaches such as irrigation, use of pesticides and keeping “farms clean” could provide improvements, he said.

“We are now advising farmers to irrigate their farms during dry seasons to ensure that crops get enough water. The farms also need to be kept clean and free from weed to avoid breeding of diseases. Even though most of these diseases are not curable, farmers can prevent them from spreading further by cutting down the affected trees,” Mr Kigundu said.

Oil palm farming in Uganda started from the Ssese Islands in the 1970s, and the ministry of agriculture decided to promote commercial production here in the 2000s. In 2019, the ministry began to promote commercial production in other parts of the country, but the Ssese Islands still remain the biggest producer of oil palm in the country today.

Oil palm trees take four years to mature and have a lifespan of 25 years. In terms of harvests, they are harvestable after every 10 days and, over the years, farmers have been harvesting an average of 700 kilogrammes of oil palm fruits from one acre per year. A kilogramme of oil palm fresh fruit is currently going for about Ush859, according to Mr Kigundu.   

In addition to cooking oil, the oil palm crop is used for making a range of products, including animal feeds, soap, cosmetics and fertilisers.

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