The pay is low and the work involves scaling a 15m 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, looking visibly drained after a mid-morning climb up a palm tree in the Nigerian 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 such as weddings and concerts, although the proliferation of beer and foreign liquor has in part curbed the demand for it.
Consumed straight from the tree, palm wine is non-alcoholic and said to have medicinal qualities, especially for digestion.
When fermented and distilled, palm sap produces a drink similar to Sprite, but with much less sugar, and is about as boozy as beer.
Experts say the consumer demand for palm wine is strong, but production is struggling amid a decades-long agricultural decline in Nigeria, where the oil industry — Africa’s largest — is 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 Ozioko’s neighbor, Sabimus Nwudo.
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 said.
His climb looked daunting, but he moved quickly, wedging his harness and feet in the pre-cut divots to reach the top of the tree, where he collected the sap that had dripped into a bottle overnight.
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,” the tapper said resting on a chair after removing a few bees from his latest haul and gulping down a cup.
The sector is still “in its cradle” and has so far failed to attract any meaningful investment, Isona Gold of the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) said.
Gold said he sees huge opportunities for growth, but his vision for better organization and higher profits for tappers has stalled.
The plan calls for the formation of clusters of 10 tappers, each harvesting 150 liters of palm wine a day, with a series of processing plants selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic product to vendors.
Under the plan, each tapper would earn about 120,000 naira (US$750) per month.
The key is in the private sector, but investors “have not indicated much interest,” he said.
As a niche product, palm wine’s appeal to prospective investors is limited. However, the lack of infrastructure speaks of a larger problem that has plagued Nigeria’s agricultural sector, which analysts say has suffered from a lack of private and public investment, despite being the top employer.
Nigeria was the world’s largest rice importer last year, the US Department of Agriculture says, bringing in 3.4 million tonnes despite having the climate and land for large-scale rice production.
While NIFOR and Abuja’s Institute of Industrial Research run projects aiming to make palm wine more profitable, Ozioko’s business remains a one-man shop.
He aims to sell about 3.7 liters to a local market each day, earning about US$9.30. That is still well above the national average of less than US$2 per day.
Ozioko sets aside some of his harvest for personal use and said he drinks palm wine every day.
When asked why, he gave a simple justification: Because “I’m a tapper,” Ozioko said.