Nigeria’s palm wine tappers face stiff competition

Every morning, Wilson Ovwiroro leaves home early to paddle a wooden canoe into thick rainforest in southern Nigeria, where he taps raffia palms, making palm wine from their fermented sap.

He also distils the alcoholic juice into a kind of gin known locally as ogogoro or Sapele water, named after the nearby town where it reputedly originated.

Once the delight of traditional ceremonies, the local beverage is suffering a decline in popularity, battered by modern breweries.

With more than 200-million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and a huge market for beer. Deep-pocketed players are vying for Nigerians’ drinking money, including local giants International Breweries and Nigerian Breweries, as well as Ireland’s Guinness. The competition may seem unequal, but small-scale tappers and brewers such as Ovwiroro still hope to keep their local beverages alive.

“I have been doing this work for 30 years. I started in Ondo state, came to Edo and spent 10 years before coming to Sapele here where I have now spent 15 years,” said Ovwiroro. His wooden shed also serves as a mill.

The tapper learnt the skill from his father, and said his wife and brothers assist him in the job. 

“I produce original ogorogo here. When you drink it, you know it is original. I don’t mix it with ethanol. My own is the real special one. When I cook it, even rich people buy from me,” he said.

The alcoholic content of ogorogo is unknown, although one glass is enough to make you feel intoxicated, say those who drink it. Ovwiroro also said the drink, which is often infused with herbs, had medicinal properties, although he offered no evidence. “When you drink it, you don’t get infections. It cures malaria and fever.” 

Ovwiroro said he boils palm wine over firewood and distils it to make ogorogo, letting it cool before pouring it into jerry cans. 

“I have many customers that buy from me. I have up to 15 customers. I sell a 25kg jerry can for 15 000 naira [$38]. I can produce two in a day if I get enough palm wine,” he said.

But he admitted that the job was “strong” — tough work — adding that he usually climbs at least 30 trees every day. 

“I come here as early as 6am every day. Most times, I don’t go home. I sleep in this bush. At times, you will step on snakes. The work is

not easy. I work every day. On Sundays, I don’t go to church,” Ovwiroro said. 

“I won’t allow my children to do the work because it is too strong.”

Ovwiroro wants the government to assist local tappers and brewers to expand their businesses, adding that the plantation from where he taps was on lease.

“I acquired this place last year. I pay 3 000 naira monthly to the community. I used to tap from another forest but the trees are no longer producing.”

Ovwiroro said the government should encourage investments in local gins. And locals agree.

“This is what we take to clear all our sicknesses and diseases away,” said Kingdown Arugbo, a businessman who said he had been taking the local speciality since he was born. 

He added that lovers of good and strong spirits should come to Sapele to taste local brews. “If any company from abroad wants it they should come to us and we will give them the well-brewed original ogogoro from the source.” — AFP

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Agoi Joel Olatunde
Joel Olatunde Agoi
Journalist AFP Lagos Bureau.

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