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J-Palm to Partner with US-based Company to Expand Market Access for Smallholder Oil Farmers

I am extremely excited to share that J-Palm Liberia will partner with Pacha Soap, a US-based soap company, to utilize blockchain technology to ensure transparency in our supply chain, and ultimately to expand market access for thousands of smallholder oil palm farmers in Liberia. This means potentially higher incomes for rural farmers, and presents a real opportunity to brand Liberian palm kernel oil on a similar scale as, say, Moroccan Argan Oil or Jamaican Black Castor Oil.

Globally, oil palm is associated with multinational firms destroying animal habitats and grabbing land to create large scale plantations. While industrial-scale oil palm cultivation is fraught with many environmental, social and economic problems, the current palm oil debate often overshadows the work and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of smallholder oil palm farmers across West and Central Africa.

Unlike the tenera variety cultivated on industrial plantations, the dura variety of the oil palm tree (what we call “country palm” in Liberia) grows naturally in the wilds without anyone really having to plant. This variety is indigenous to Liberia and most West African, and in fact was genetically modified to create the tenera variety that is widely planted on industrial estates around the world.

The growth of wild/ dura palm avoids most of the environmental and socioeconomic problems associated with large-scale plantations in several important ways. First, because it grows in the wild without anyone having to plant, it doesn’t contribute to deforestation and destruction of animal habitats. Second, most of these trees are owned by the communities and the local people who live in those communities. As a local oil palm farmer put it to a member of the Pacha team, “if the tree falls on your land, it belongs to you.” In a sense, these wild palm trees are God’s gift to the people and the land. And so, increased demand for dura palm means more money going directly into the pockets of smallholder farmers across the continent.

Unfortunately, many of the smallholder oil palm farmers in Liberia and across the region lack access to capital and basic processing technology. As a result, they have to use their hands to extract the palm oil, which reduces yields by half and contributes to significant post-harvest loss.

While we are still finalizing the details, part of our partnership with Pacha Soap will be to scale up our existing model of building mini processing mills in rural communities. These mills reduce processing times by 90% and increase yields by 50%. In addition to palm oil processing, we also buy the (previously wastes) palm kernels from the farmers, enabling them to earn even more money.

The blockchain integration is very important in this regard, because it enables us to accurately track our interactions with the farmers (who, when, where EXACTLY, how much, etc..). This sort of supply chain transparency allows us to be able to market the oils to a wider market. Globally, as consumers demand cleaner ingredients in their products, brands are becoming increasingly interested in being aligned with supply chain partners that maximize value for smallholder farmers directly, both because it makes for a more inspiring impact story and because businesses in this modern age have a responsibility to ensure equity in terms of how industry profits are allocated across the supply chain. As demand increases for this cleaner, more environmentally and economically sustainable variety of palm oil and palm kernel oil, it forces more companies to invest in sourcing from smallholder farmers in Liberia and across the region.

We’ve been trying to tell this story for the last SIX years, and it’s been an excruciatingly slow burn. But we are so excited that the message is starting to cut across. This partnership provides an excellent opportunity not just for J-Palm, but for the tens of thousands of smallholder oil palm farmers, and for the country as a whole to lead in the movement toward cleaner, more sustainable palm oil.

Up until now, the sustainable oil palm movement has been focused on mitigating the harmful practices associated with cultivating industrial-scale plantations.

I think it’s about time to take a model and variety that is fundamentally better, and scale it.

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