By: Mahmud Johnson
For the longest time, we Liberians (and Africans for the most part) have been seen mostly as suppliers of raw materials and labor, and as passive consumers.
We have the world’s largest reserves of most natural resources, but not the world’s biggest factories. Africa is the world’s largest grower of cocoa, yet most of our rural farmers have never even tasted a chocolate bar. The world relies heavily on Africa’s vast mineral and agricultural resources, yet we remain in poverty.
At J-Palm, we believe that the future of our country and continent lies not in exporting raw materials, but in adding value to those natural resources. That’s how we will be able to create better incomes for our farmers, and create the kinds of high quality jobs that will lift us out of poverty.
Take palm kernels for example: Around the time that we started in 2013, most farmers in Liberia were simply throwing the palm kernels away. We said, let’s figure out what we add value to these palm kernels so that the farmers can benefit.
And that’s how Kernel Fresh was born. Now, in most rural communities where we operate, palm kernels are no longer treated as waste, but instead are seen as a cash crop that farmers can trade to help grow their incomes. As these farmers’ incomes increase, they are able to expand their farms, send their children to school, and support their communities in ways that they weren’t able to before.
Another part of the founding vision of the company was also to innovate on the consumer side: to ask, what are the challenges Liberian consumers face when it comes to skin and hair care? And then to go to work to design solutions specifically for them. And I think there’s a certain amount of dignity inherent in that process, where we listen to our people and innovate to design solutions that work for them.
If you think about skin care products in Liberia, most of the imported products don’t work. Take lotions for example: most of the imported lotions are either too harsh on the skin, or bleach the skin, or make you sweat. The few good ones are too expensive.
The reason why most of these products don’t work is that, frankly, they weren’t made for us in the first place. If a lotion is made for the European market or the American market (where it’s cold for most of the year), it will most likely include ingredients to ensure that the consumer’s skin is protected during the cold season. But using that lotion in our environment where it’s hot year round will most likely make you sweat.
And so, we decided to create a solution for this.
In 2017, we were selected as a winner of the Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge. Now, Johnson & Johnson is the largest consumer health care company in the world, with more than 14,000 scientists.
We said to them: let’s work together to create a lotion that works for the Liberian consumer. They paired us with one of their top scientists in the skincare division. We said to her: we have palm kernel oil, we have shea butter abundantly in this region. Let’s figure out how to use these ingredients to make a lotion that works for our people. And that’s precisely what happened. We started in August 2018 and developed a lotion that’s effective in moisturizing the skin, smells really nice, doesn’t make you sweat, and stays on throughout the day. And the fact that our main ingredients are locally sourced means that not only do we benefit the farmers, the consumer also benefits because we are able to keep the cost low and also the price low, too.
But for me, the most beautiful part of this process is the fact that it’s local in nature, and done in ways that empower Liberians. Here is a product that has been formulated and rigorously tested to meet international standards, that was produced using palm kernels sourced from our own Liberian farmers. What happens when a customer purchases a bottle of this lotion, or a bottle of Kernel Fresh oil, or a bar of soap? Part of that money goes to the farmers who supplied the raw materials. But beyond that, we have also been able to create a whole supply chain around this, and create jobs for hundreds of Liberians: the drivers, the factory staff, the packaging team, the sales people. Each person has a family, and so we have this cascading effect wherein by buying this Liberian-made product, the customer helps grow the economy, because almost all of that money stays right here in Liberia.
And that’s the beauty of the Kernel Fresh products and J-Palm Liberia’s mission: it’s this abiding faith that we as Liberians have the power to effect positive change by building and supporting businesses that structure their operations in ways that economically benefit Liberians all across the value chain.
By simply buying more Made in Liberia products, loving and supporting Liberian businesses, we lift each other up in ways that are powerful, sustainable and meaningful.