The Man Who Brought Ashoka Tree To Nigeria

This year, Dr Michael Omolayole would turn 94. Many professional bodies already honour him as a national icon, but none seems to recognise the green side of this “corporate statesman,” who said he would be proud to be called a tree-hugger, a derogatory term used to refer to environmentalists.

The tree he “imported” into Nigeria in 1978, nurtured and popularised, is now more than an ornamental plant. It is used to fight climate change as a windbreaker, flower fence, boundary marker, and a check on desertification. And with some research, as it is already used in India, it could be used as a medicinal plant.
As one who believed in environmental protection and pollution control, Elder Omolayole was an early convert to tree planting. When he became the first indigenous Chief Executive Officer of Unilever Nigeria Plc, his innate green passion came alive in a very remarkable way to set a template for the country’s corporate sector. In the mid-1960s, Unilever had built a new detergent factory on the factory site at Apapa, on the shore of Lagos Lagoon. The detergent market was booming; so when Omolayole became CEO in the mid-1970s, he decided to expand the detergent plant.
As the company expanded its operation, the volume of their production was sufficiently large that the effluent being discharged into the lagoon became highly noticeable. Some days, there would be a big foam floating in the lagoon; in some other days, the roofs of buildings and leaves of trees in the neighbourhood would be covered with very fine blue detergent powder which had escaped into the atmosphere from the Unilever factory. So, in order to prevent regulators and their neighbours from taking action against the company, Omolayole directed the Technical Director of Unilever to create a position of “Environmental Protection and Pollution Control Manager.”
But to his horror, some of the staff shortened the title to “Pollution Manager”. Luckily, he was very effective and succeeded in reducing considerably the amount of pollution from the company, by advising on changes in the production process. Omolayole said that he was particularly happy that they saved the trees and also stopped polluting the lagoon.
Ashoka tree literally means “sorrow-less”. Its botanical name is “saraca indica,” and it has two types: the geotropic and the phototropic. The geotropic type has the shape of a cone; when growing up, it is usually straight and upright. On the other hand, the phototropic type is a shady tree with a shape like a big umbrella, comparable to a mango or almond tree. Ashoka originated from Southern Asia, especially India.
It will be difficult to categorically establish when and how Ashoka first came to Nigeria, but those interested in the species noted that Ashoka trees used to line the Police College in Ikeja, Lagos State, as ornamental trees. And, looking back at the history of the Police College, there was a time when there were Indian Police officers as part of the Training Command in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Indian officers might have introduced the Ashoka tree.
Nonetheless, the story of the Ashoka tree in Nigeria would not be complete without the contribution of Michael Omolayole. As Chairman of Unilever in Nigeria, he travelled to India in 1978 to attend an international conference. After the conference in New Delhi, he went to Bombay (now Mumbai) to visit the head office of Hindustan Lever, which took him to the Mumbai Unilever Research Station. When he got to the research station, a long avenue lined by Ashoka trees welcomed him – a most beautiful scenery, which resonated with his passion for trees and flowering plants. He promptly requested to have a cutting of the plant to propagate in Nigeria, to which the Research Director at the station replied that the tree could not be planted by having a cutting but by having seedlings. He eventually returned to Nigeria without the Ashoka.
Hence, to his utmost surprise, a tray of twelve Ashoka seedlings was delivered to his office in Lagos a few weeks later, and that began the eventful journey to popularise Ashoka in Nigeria’s ecosystem. For a long time, Omolayole did not know how to propagate the Ashoka tree. A lot of his friends who saw it in his country home at Ijebu-Imushin, Ogun State — where he transplanted them from Lagos after erroneously concluding that Lagos’ soil was not good for them — wanted to have it in their gardens. His gardener then showed him some seedlings he had uprooted near one of the trees, and he concluded that he had discovered how to propagate the tree. But when he planted the seeds, they did not germinate!
But because of the increasing demand for the seedlings from friends, Omolayole consulted Dr S. O. Talabi, an agricultural scientist of repute. Eventually, Talabi came to him with the discovery (from his research on the Ashoka seeds) that changed everything. Ashoka seeds must be planted within one or two weeks of the ripe fruit falling off the tree, otherwise, the embryo inside the seed would have died. The secret is to know when to plant the seed. It is obvious that in biology, all seeds that grow must have an embryo inside. Therefore, the easiest way to propagate Ashoka is to collect the seeds within a week or two of the seeds falling down and plant them. In that way, the elder statesman was able to raise thousands of seedlings within a reasonable time and began to make it available to fellow Nigerians who wanted to beautify their environment.
Omolayole said that from the moment he discovered how to propagate them, he then wanted to sell the seedlings in very large quantities as well. But he discovered that there was no ready market except through horticulturists. Therefore, he decided to popularise Ashoka in his own little way, by using the conical ornamental tree as the logo of his consultancy company.
According to this nonagenarian management consultant, his company chose the Ashoka logo because they believe it is a symbol of their uprightness, straightforwardness, transparency and integrity in their business transactions. Moreover, since the company advertises a lot in the newspapers in the process of executive selection for their clients, a lot of Nigerians now know the name of the tree. For instance, before then, most Nigerians referred to the Ashoka tree as the “masquerade” because it looks like a masquerade in Yoruba called “Igunu.”
The Ashoka tree, mostly seen in Nigeria, is the conical type because its shape makes it unique and picturesque, especially when the trees are artistically spaced in a linear fashion. It is, therefore, heartwarming that Omolayole has also contributed to the knowledge of this species in Nigeria through the publication of his book, The Story of the Ashoka Tree in Nigeria, where he shares his experience, thereby guiding eco-lovers and aspiring environmentalists on how to plant and care for the now-popular ornamental tree.
According to him, the challenge of monitoring Ashoka is to keep it as a cone with good foliage and not too tall. He advised that one way of solving this is for scientists to develop the dwarf variety through biotechnology. The other way is to plant the seedlings in concrete flower pots or plastic flower pots. For those trees that are already growing tall, it is easy to start pruning the trees after they have reached the height of about ten to twelve feet, and the whole tree can be subjected to periodic pruning still to create a semblance of a truncated cone. He, however, said it is not advisable for branches that touch the ground to be pruned because when they are pruned the tree loses its conical shape.
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