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Nigeria palm wine tappers face tough climb to success

  • Palm wine tapper Anthony Ozioko climbs a palm tree in Eha-Alumona, southeastern Nigeria on August 8, 2013. The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 50-foot tree multiple times a day with no safety net, so it is not surprising that Nigerian palm wine tappers are struggling to find fresh recruits.AFP

  • Palm wine tapper Anthony Ozioko climbs a palm tree in Eha-Alumona, southeastern Nigeria on August 8, 2013. The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 50-foot tree multiple times a day with no safety net, so it is not surprising that Nigerian palm wine tappers are struggling to find fresh recruits.AFP

  • Palm wine tapper Anthony Ozioko drinks palm wine in Eha-Alumona town, southeastern Nigeria on August 8, 2013. The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 50-foot tree multiple times a day with no safety net, so it is not surprising that Nigerian palm wine tappers are struggling to find fresh recruits.AFP

  • Palm wine tapper Anthony Ozioko climbs a palm tree in Eha-Alumona, southeastern Nigeria on August 8, 2013. The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 50-foot tree multiple times a day with no safety net, so it is not surprising that Nigerian palm wine tappers are struggling to find fresh recruits.AFP

The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 50-foot tree multiple times a day with no safety net, so it is not surprising that Nigerian palm wine tappers are struggling to find fresh recruits.

"No newcomers," said Anthony Ozioko, a slight 63-year-old, visibly drained after a mid-morning climb up a palm tree in the southeastern town of Nsukka.

Nigerians have been drinking the sap from raffia trees, a species of palm, since long before the country existed.

Palm wine was once the region's main social drink, an almost mandatory offer at events like weddings and concerts, although the proliferation of beer and foreign liquor has in part curbed the demand for the more traditional drink.

Consumed straight from the tree, palm wine is a non-alcoholic drink and said by some to have medicinal qualities, especially for the digestive system.

When fermented and distilled, palm sap produces a drink that recalls a bottle of Sprite, but with much less sugar and about as boozy as a standard bottle of beer.

Experts say the consumer demand for palm wine is strong, but production is struggling amid a decades long agriculture sector decline in Nigeria, where the oil industry, Africa's largest, has become excessively dominant.

Attempts to develop the palm wine sector have mostly floundered and the business largely remains as rudimentary as ever: tappers climb the tree, process the sap and deliver it directly to a customer, typically someone who lives nearby.

For young Nigerians the work seems to have little appeal.

"I don't want (my son) to be a tapper. I want him to be a pilot," said Sabimus Nwudo as his neighbour Ozioko described the gruelling work and marginal profits.

When a tree is ready to be harvested, the first task is "to make the road" by using a machete to cut divots up the trunk, which serve as slots for both feet and a locally made climbing aid that resembles a harness, Ozioko explained.

His climb looked daunting but he moved quickly, wedging his harness and feet in the pre-cut divots, eventually securing himself at the top of the trunk, where he collected the sap that had dripped overnight into a bottle attached to the trunk.

Ozioko's expert movements made the work look deceptively safe but serious injuries and some deaths have occurred, locals said.

Put simply, "if you don't know how to climb it, you'll fall", said the tapper, resting on a chair after removing a few bees from his latest haul and gulping down a cup.

The industry is still "in its cradle" and has so far failed to attract any meaningful investment, said Isona Gold of the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR).

Gold said he sees huge opportunities for growth but his vision for better organisation and higher profits for tappers has stalled.

The plan calls for the formation of clusters of 10 tappers, each harvesting 150 litres of palm wine per day, with a series of local processing plants selling a bottled product -- alcoholic or not -- to vendors.

The NIFOR plan estimates each tapper earning 120,000 naira ($750, 570 euros) per month. If successful, "the young generation may want to go in", Gold said.

The key is private sector involvement, he added, but so far investors "have not indicated much interest".

As a niche product, and one that arguably involves an acquired taste, palm wine's appeal to prospective investors is limited.

But the lack of infrastructure speaks of a larger problem that has plagued Nigeria's entire agricultural sector, which analysts say has suffered from a woeful lack of investment, both private and public, despite being the country's top employment sector.

Nigeria, with its estimated 167 million people, was the world's largest rice importer in 2012, according to the US Department of Agriculture, bringing in 3.4 million tonnes despite having the climate and land suitable to large-scale rice production.

Economists have pointed to massive rice imports to highlight the decay of Nigeria's agriculture sector.

While NIFOR and the government's Institute for Industrial Research are currently running pilot projects that seek to make the palm wine industry more profitable, Ozioko's business remains a one-man shop.

He aims to sell about 3.7 litres to a local market each day, earning about $9.30.

That income is still well above the national average in a country where most live on less that $2 per day.

Ozioko also sets aside some of his harvest for personal use.

When asked, he said he drinks palm wine every day and offered a simple justification.

Because "I'm a tapper", he said.