Liberia: Social Entrepreneur Mahmud Johnson Envisions a New World through Palm Kernels

Liberian entrepreneur Mahmud Johnson
31 December 2020
interview

Monrovia — Mahmud Johnson is among a group of young Liberians who attended university in the United States and, rather than settling abroad, returned to their country to help rebuild it. Their contributions are essential elements in Liberia's continuing attempt to retain momentum towards peace and prosperity after a quarter century of conflict and unrest, followed by the devastation of Ebola - and, now, the health, economic and social consequences of Covid-19. Johnson talked to AllAfrica about his work and his goal that it will be a tool to to create jobs and help lift Liberians from persistent poverty. A $250,000 grant from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) is assisting J Palm in its efforts to expand and provide more small farmers with sustainable income, despite the pandemic. Edward Blamo caught up with Johnson this month to discuss J Palm's aspirations.

Can you give us a brief background of J Palm?

J Palm started in 2013. The idea is to create opportunities for very small-scale famers in the oil palm sector to grow their incomes and improve their communities.

If you look at Liberia, you see that palm trees grow naturally all over the place. And the palm-oil industry is massive. We are talking about more than 60 billion U.S. dollars worth of palm oil being sold in the world every year. Yet, still, you travel to the rural areas and see the people making palm oil the same way they have for hundreds of years. They just cannot see their lives improve from the palm-oil business. That prompted me to look more closely at why is it that while there is so much demand for palm oil - we eat palm oil in almost all of our food - the farmers are not really benefiting from it?

The reason is that in most of these communities, there are a lot of inefficiencies. Farmers have to use their bare hands to squeeze the oil from the palm fruit. The kernels (the hard central nut of the palm fruit) all go into waste. And the roads are very difficult for farmers to trade their produce. If you cannot trade a lot of stuff, what's the point of even producing it? If you look at it, it is a sort of vicious cycle of poverty. People cannot afford money to buy machines and take their produce to market; therefore, they cannot produce more and sell more, and so they remain in poverty.

The goal of J Palm is to find ways to address these issues in a business framework, instead of taking a nonprofit approach. How can you build a business that is self-sustaining, which would enable us to address those problems in a significant way over the long term?

What we do, basically, is to travel to those rural areas and set up machines that enable farmers to make their oil much more efficiently. Instead of spending eight hours, a famer can do the same amount of work in 30 minutes. That saves time and allows them to produce more - to make more money to improve themselves. So that's the basic thing. We buy the oil from them, and we use it to produce skin-care products and hair-care products.

The USADF Grant, how did you manage to pull it off?

The USADF grant is exciting in so many ways. One is just the nature of it; it's a partnership. J Palm is working with an American company called Pacha Soap, and they produce soaps in the United States. They are very keen on ensuring that, as their business grows, they can create real impact in the world. They approached us to set up supply chains targeting smallholder farmers. We have been working together for two years now.

That was the basis for this USADF grant. One of the reasons I think it was attractive to USADF was the fact that you have an African company partnering with an American company to come together in ways that benefit both parties and smallholder farmers. We are going to be producing palm kernel oil that this company can use in their products. Through that transaction, smallholder farmers in Liberia directly benefit. So if you think about an American citizen going into Walmart or where Pacha Soap sells its products and buy a soap, part of that proceed benefit a farmer in Liberia. That's the kind of change we want to see in the world, where every consumer can make an impact by being more conscious about the products they use.

Let's look at the specifics of the grant. How much are we talking about here, and how is it going to affect your business?    

The grant is about two-hundred and fifty thousand United States dollars, and it is for a period of four years. There are several outcomes that we intend to have through this project. One is to reach about 6400 farmers who will be working along with us. The specific mechanism is, we are going to build 20 mini-mills in 20 different communities in rural Bong County  [in north-central Liberia, bordering the country of Guinea]. Farmers in that area can harvest their palms and bring it to the processing site - and process their palm oil right there.

Poor roads, far-away markets, no processing facilities limit farm income.

This is in contrast to the traditional method of them using their hands. Usually when people are using their hands to process oil it takes them about eight hours to process just 200 kilograms of palm oil, verses using the machines with less manpower. That saves time from eight hours to 30 minutes. It also saves them cost, because you do not need to pay for assistance to help you make oil. The third part of the project is the marketing piece. In most parts of Liberia, there is no way to sell your produce when it is not a market day. Even on market days, some people have to walk two to three hours to get to the market to sell their produce.

That limits how much they can trade. You cannot take all your produce to the market, since you are walking to get there. All of those things reduce the productivity of the farmers. The other aspect of it is the palm kernel. When farmers produce the oil, they can have the option to sell the oil to us right there - and at the same price as if they had walked all the way to the market. So that gives them the opportunity to earn cash immediately when they produce the oil. The forth aspect of this is the palm kernel. Instead of going to waste as is done in most communities, most of whom throw it into the river or burn it - both of which are forms of pollution - they can sell to us, which we use to produce our skin products and export part of it to the United States.

The future is organic.

The fifth part is the fact that we are going to get organic certification for all the communities we will work in. That allows you to earn more money, because the buyers pay more when the product is organic That puts Liberian farmers at a huge advantage, because now they can be able to tap into the American market and European markets to trade their produce. As they earn more money, who knows, they may be able to send their children to school, take care of the communities and really contribute to significant change in their areas.

The project implementation has not commenced. How far are you in terms of preparation?

We are still very much in the early stages. The plan was to begin constructing the sites this month and to start real production in January. That's when the palm season really gets started. We hope to have those 20 sites set up and all the machines ready during the next harvest season.

After this project, what do you hope to see change in your business and those communities?

I want to see real change for the people who will be part of the project. Four years from now we want to be able to look back and say that people among these 6400 farmers that we targeted have been able to grow their income four to five times more than when we started the project. We want to be able to see a sort of branding for 'made in Liberia' palm products. All around the world, people think about palm oil in a very negative light, because of what the big companies are doing.

They are destroying the rainforest to plant palm, taking peoples' lands, and all of those things. But in Liberia, especially in the rural areas where palm trees grow naturally, it is not the case. Nobody is cutting down forest to plant palm, because it grows all by itself The land belongs to the people. This is a clear example of the kind of social benefit that can accrue, when we design projects specifically with the people in mind. It is really about how we set up a supply chain and make it work for the people. Ultimately we want to see impact. We also want people to know that it is possible to do palm oil in a way that is ethical, benefits people and creates lasting impact.

 Edward Blamo studied communications at United Methodist University in Monrovia and has reported and edited for several Liberian news organizations. AllAfrica interviews are edited for length and context.

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