Ali Abasora searches for oil to buy for his holiday consumption at a kiosk under Yenegew Tesfa Consumers Cooperative Union located in  Wereda 03 of Kirkos District.

On the morning of September 11, 2019, the eve of the Ethiopian New Year, Ali Abasora, in his mid-30s, was at a kiosk under Yenegew Tesfa Consumers Cooperative Union located in Wereda 03 of Kirkos District.

Located around Agona Cinema on Sierra Leone Street, the kiosk was serving six people who lined up to buy cooking oil.

As Fortunewas able to observe at the shop, there were only 10 jugs of 20lt palm oil, since the demand for the product is high, and it is sold out within two days.

Ali, who was born in Jimma town, 347Km from the capital in Oromia Regional State, but grew up in Addis Abeba, came to the shop to buy cooking oil for the New Year’s holiday.

He used to use palm oil because of its price, 127 Br for a five-litre jug of oil, but he does not buy the product anymore because of health problems. The only other oil product in the shop is five-litre jugs of Hamaressa oil, which was sold for 380 Br.

Ali, who has not purchased palm oil for the last four years, believes that using palm oil for a long time will expose people to many health problems.

He says that he has been suffering from knee pain for several years and suspects that his illness could be caused by the palm oil he had been using.

“After hearing about the side effects of using the oil from the media and my friends, I stopped using it,” he said. "Now, after I stopped using the oil, I don’t feel the pain in my knee as before.''

Besides this, palm oil condenses, according to Ali.

It it not just a rumour either. The Ethiopian Public Health Institute has also announced that palm oil can bring about long-term health effects.

Birhanu Dejene, head of Yenegew Tesfa Consumers Cooperative Union, brings out goods from a storeroom in Wereda 03 of Kirkos District.

"We disclosed to the public that through time, using palm oil has associated health problems," said Gezahgn Tesfaye, communications director of the Institute, which conducted research and submitted the results to the Ministry of Health.

Conducted on seven locally-produced and nine imported cooking oil products, the research focused on the quality and healthiness of the products. The findings of the study were disclosed to the public last June.

The research was conducted according to the standards set by the World Health Organization and used laboratory animals for testing, according to Ebba Abate (PhD), director of the Institute.

"Even though the locally-produced oils have production quality problems, they don’t have a negative health impact," said Ebba. "The imported oil products have a high level of saturated fatty acid and using this product, in the long run, causes cholesterol."

The Institute also plans to conduct research on the societal effects of continuously using palm oil. Yet the Ministry of Trade & Industry continues to give out permits to import the product.

There are also over 1,000 companies that are registered by the Ministry of Trade & Industry to process oil in the country, though over 912 companies import cooking oil. However, these companies are not allowed to import palm oil, which is consumed by the majority of people due to its affordability.

Following recurrent shortages of cooking oil that hit the country, in 2010 the government devised a way to remedy the problem. One of the schemes was to subsidise cooking oil and distribute it through cooperative union shops at subsidised costs.

In a bid to stabilise the market and deal with the supply problem, in 2011 the government banned private companies from importing palm oil, allowing only government-owned firms to import it. In 2015, the Ministry readjusted the regulation by allowing 10 selected private companies to import palm oil. The companies were selected based on their capacity and performance in the market.

Four endowments, five private firms, and one governmental organisation are licensed by the Ministry to import palm oil. These companies import 40 million litres of palm oil a year, mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia.

To facilitate the import of the product, the Ministry helps the selected importers get foreign currency and duty-free privileges for the oil. The imported oil is distributed through cooperative unions and the Ethiopian Fruit & Vegetable Marketing S.C. (ETfruit), across the country.

Ali Abasora searches for oil to buy for his holiday consumption at a kiosk under Yenegew Tesfa Consumers Cooperative Union located in  Wereda 03 of Kirkos District.

The government subsidies each litre of imported palm oil by 0.37 Br.

The standard of palm oil is measured by cloud point, a temperature at which wax begins to separate when oil is chilled. Measured on a 10-point scale, the higher the cloud point, the lower the quality of the oil.

Ethiopia imports palm oil that earns the tenth cloud point, a lower quality oil, which is also imported by 63 other countries. Palm oil covers 63pc of world oil demand.

Wondimu Filate, head of public relations and communications affairs at the Ministry of Trade & Industry, admits that the oil entering the country is registered at the tenth cloud point, but he deflects the question by pointing to the dozens of other countries importing the product.

“We import palm oil for low-income people,” said Wondimu.

However, he argues that the product does not have a quality problem, since it is distributed after passing through a test by the Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise.

"We distribute the product if only the product meets the required criteria," Wondimu adds.

The Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise, which takes three days to test palm oil in the laboratory, claims that the tests verify the quality of the palm oil, which is in distribution.

"If the imported product isn't up to the necessary quality," said Teke Birhanu, marketing and communications director at the Enterprise, "it would be sent back to the country where it came from."

The country has an annual production capacity of more than 784,809tn of oilseeds, and the average per capita consumption of cooking oil is 8.9lt of oil a year.

Global production of palm oil has increased from 15 million tonnes in 1995 to 66 million tonnes in 2017, according to the World Health Organisation.

WHO says that the oil contains a much higher percentage of saturated fats compared to other vegetable oils.

Although its negative health impacts are contested, a meta-analysis of increased palm oil consumption in 23 countries found a significant relationship with higher mortality from ischaemic heart disease, according to WHO.

"Another systematic review found that palm oil consumption increased blood levels of atherogenic, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol," reads WHO's report. "As early as 2003, WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) described the evidence linking saturated fat consumption with increased risk of cardiovascular disease as convincing."

A medical doctor, who has spent a quarter of a century in the sector, believes that palm oil has both benefits and side effects depending on how it is used.

Palm oil consists of vitamin E, which helps to boost brain health, has a lower cholesterol level and helps to improve the health of the heart by slowing the progression of the heart, according to Tadele Bogale, (MD), deputy country director of Alive & Thrive-FHI 360, a global nutrition initiative.

"But if we reuse palm oil, it has side effects, and besides increasing the level of cholesterol, it can expose us to different types of cancer and heart disease," Tadele said.

Tadele recommends that the nation develop a capacity of producing oil locally using seeds like niger and sesame.

"Importing palm oil should be the last resort, and the government has to educate the public not to reuse the product," he said.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 14,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1011]

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