Oil palms are grown throughout West and Central Africa, but the development of the palm oil industry has been slow, despite a thriving market.  A project sponsored by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is about to change the palm oil industry in Cameroon and Nigeria.  Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Divine Nytaryike in Douala, Cameroon says palm oil is a common ingredient in traditional dishes in West and Central Africa. It is cheaper than vegetable oil and can also be used to make soap and pomade.

There are several reasons for the low output: obsolete production equipment, aging plantations and little access to technology and financing.  Cameroon produces 160,000 tons of palm oil a year. That's far below demand, which is expected to reach 220,000 tons by 2010.

This year, Cameroon imported 50,000 tons of palm oil. In some parts of Cameroon, small farmers must crush palm fruits in unhygienic stone pits, from which the reddish oil is filtered. The quality is often not the best and the risk of contamination high.

The United Nations Organization for Industrial Development [UNIDO] is overseeing a project to boost sustainable palm oil production in Cameroon and neighboring Nigeria. The two countries will provide the financial support for the five million dollar project, which will span four years. The coordinator is Chief Michael Mbi Oruh, the technical adviser in Cameroon's Ministry of Industries, Mines and Technological Development. He says the goal is to help the countries use palm oil to generate income. He told the Nigerian Press Agency that Cameroon will give half a million dollars, and Nigeria will give $800,000, to kick off the project.

The money will be used to train farmers in new and more efficient ways of processing palm oil. It will also buy planting material and equipment. UNIDO will provide expertise in training and in buying the equipment and high quality plants for the old plantations. A commission is now laying the groundwork for the start of the project in southwest Nigeria.

The project will try to help small farmers gain control of 85 percent of the palm oil market in West and Central Africa. The farmers are enthusiastic. They have been told that plantations, some more than 25 years old, will be re-planted with better quality seeds.

Experts say the project is a huge boost for the palm oil sector in the region. Cameroon and Nigeria have the right tropical climate and rich soils. Yields will eventually increase, the quality of the product will improve and production costs will drop, leading to more income for producers.

It is estimated the project will create a thousand new jobs, and maybe even more ? once investors beginning marketing by-products from the palm oil.