This film is held by the BFI (ID: 15140).


How oil palm is produced in Nigeria.

The film opens with a map and a shot of a local plantation, as the intertitles provide facts about the palms. Africans are shown climbing the trees - 'the natives climb the palms by the aid of native-made rope, and with a sharp knife cut away the leaves' - before an African holds the palm to the camera. The Africans travel to the market on the river and then walk towards the camera carrying their products by 'head transport'. The superstitions of the locals are shown, as they dance around 'their Juju man'. Others play instruments, while crowds watch a 'Juju dance'. A busy market scene is shown, as a white person walks along and points at the barrels that are then taken away by the Africans. Two Africans prepare the fruits into pots, and beat the circular receptacle, as the inter-titles explain the industrial process. The oil is poured into tins and Africans then load them into casks. These are then loaded onto a ship, under the supervision of a white man. The film ends with more African dancing.



The Oil Palm of Nigeria was released in the summer of 1928 as part of the third ‘Empire series’. The series also included The City of Kano, which was one of nine films relating to Nigeria listed in the British Instructional catalogue in 1928. These ranged from films of geographical areas (for example, Lagos, the Capital of Nigeria, Northern Provinces of Nigeria, and Southern Provinces of Nigeria) to events and profiles (The Durbar at Zaria, A Day from Douki’s Diary– Douki was a donkey) and films of industrial processes (Cotton Growing in Nigeria, Tin Mining in Nigeria).

The Oil Palm of Nigeria falls into the final category, as it outlined the history of the oil palm ‘from its origin in a tropical forest to the moment when it is shipped for transportation to Liverpool’ (British Instructional Films, 1928). Yet, publicity materials noted that ‘many new aspects of native life are introduced’ and reviews also emphasised that the ‘extraction by native labour are shown clearly, with native types, dances, etc’ (Bioscope, 6 June 1928, 43).

The Cambridge History of Africa noted that palm oil ‘had replaced slaves as the main export from West Africa, supplying material for soap, lubricants and lighter fuel to distant markets’ (Roberts, 1986, 97). The kernel was also used in the form of margarine, but by 1928 Nigeria’s position in the world export market for palm products was deteriorating. David Meredith noted that by 1922, palm products accounted for 57% of Nigeria’s domestic exports compared to 92% in 1909-1913, in part because of increased competition from other countries (Meredith, 1984, 312). The situation would worsen. In 1928 Nigeria exported 128,000 tons, and its three main rivals, Malaya, Dutch East Indies and the Belgian Congo exported 45,500 between them. Yet, in 1938 Nigeria exported 110,000 tons, while the other countries now exported 344,000 tons (The Times, 31 October 1945, 5).

Lord Balfour of Inchrye, formerly Resident Minister in West Africa, blamed the decline on ‘out-of-date methods’ and suggested that ‘education of the African grower is essential, but it is a great and long task’ (The Times, 31 October 1945, 5). An article written by the Director of Agriculture in 1928 stated that ‘the outstanding feature of the structure of society in Nigeria is the fact that all the farming is done by peasant farmers, the smallest of smallholders. The average farm consists of three acres of crop’. The article again suggested that ‘nearly 100,000 tons of oil is wasted annually owing to the inefficiency of the native methods of extraction’, further suggesting that ‘it is obvious that what Nigeria needs is factories to buy the fruit from the native and extract the oil and kernels by modern methods’ (The Times, 30 October 1928, xix).

While the government stipulated that expatriates should not own plantations in West Africa, increased colonial influence in 1928 – in the form of a direct adult male taxation – did lead to unrest. Fifty women were killed and another fifty injured after the British responded to female protests against injustices, deteriorating trade conditions and the alleged introduction of a women’s tax. Susan Martin examined the so-called ‘Women’s Riot’ of 1929 and assessed the conditions faced by Ngwa women during the 1920s, yet no sense of worker unrest is addressed within the film. 



While it may be structured around the process of oil palm production, Oil Palm in Nigeria is perhaps more accurately viewed as an ethnographic (albeit populist) short. It places particular emphasis on perceived local customs, and on the ‘native’ methods used. It presents ethnographic shots of Africans climbing trees and shows an African covered only at the waist, holding the fruit to the camera. Rows of Africans walk towards the camera carrying products on their head – some ‘may travel more than 100 miles by head transport’ – while a title explains that ‘the Palm-oil is prepared in a crude and primitive way’. The film, as with contemporary British reports, highlights the antiquated, traditional methods used. While this film does not align this depiction with any deterioration in the industry, even claiming that the industry enjoys ‘a large and increasing demand’, this representation inadvertently supports the popular colonial view that problems within the industry lie with ‘outdated’ local methods.

The film emphasises the ‘superstitions’ – as opposed to religion – of the locals, endorsing the popular western notion that the Africans put their faith in superstition. A title explains that ‘The Africans, especially in the dense forest country, are very superstitious, and before the commencement of the oil season consult their Juju man’. The camera then depicts a local group dancing around a figure dressed as a God, before a further title explains that the Juju man ‘correctly informs them when they may go to the bush to cut palm fruits’. The ‘peculiar figure’ of the Juju is compared to ‘our old time marionette’. The use of the word ‘our’ here further presents this distinction between British and African cultures. The film is certainly consistent with other films in the series, in not only displaying the local customs, but in positioning them as ‘different’ from, and less developed than, British methods and customs.

The film, through its representation of traditional life, thus implies a need for British assistance. There is though little British presence within the film. A single white person, dressed all in white, points out the barrels that the Africans should take away at the market; a lone white person at the edge of the shot directs the Africans to pour the oil into tins; a single white man oversees the locals pushing the casks and loading them onto the ship. The film thus presents the British as largely detached from the ‘alien’ customs and processes of the locals. The narrative conclusion of the film – ‘as usual the season terminates with a dance’ – further suggests that the film’s subject is the Nigerian people, as much as the industry itself.

Tom Rice (March 2008)


Works Cited

Lord Balfour of Inchrye, ‘Nigeria Lagging Behind’, The Times, 31 October 1945, 5.

‘Third Empire Series’, Bioscope, 6 June 1928, 43.

British Instructional Films, Catalogue of Films for Non-Theatrical Exhibition(1928).

Faulkner, O. T., ‘Agriculture in Nigeria’, The Times, 30 October 1928, xix.

Martin, Susan M., Palm Oil and Protest : An Economic History of the Ngwa Region, South-East Nigeria, 1800-1980(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Meredith, David, ‘Government and the Decline of the Nigerian Oil-Palm Export industry, 1919-1939’, Journal of African History, 25 (1984), 311-329.

Roberts, A. D. ed., The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 7 1905-1940(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).



Series Title:

Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
737 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
BALL, Graham
Production Company
British Instructional Films







Production Organisations