On market day in Gio Town, farmers learn a new way to extract palm oil

Liberia, March 31, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    An early sketch helped Mercy Corps staff review the benefits of the hand-powered Freedom-2 palm oil mill. Photo: Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    On market day, local farmers give the new mill a try. Photo: Mercy Corps

Wednesday is market day in Gio Town, a small village in Liberia’s Grand Bassa County. By mid-morning the stalls are crowded with vendors and shoppers. Sellers offer brightly pattered lapa cloth, sacks of foufou and rice, and piles of red and green peppers and bitter ball. Buyers roam the rows looking for pots and pans, shoes and a staple of the Liberian diet: palm oil.

Today there’s something new at the market. Mercy Corps is holding a demonstration of the Freedom-2 Oil Mill, a hand-powered device that’s used to extract the oil from palm nuts.

Traditionally, women (sometimes with men assisting) crush the nuts using a stout mortar and pestle. It’s backbreaking labor that often leads to painful rheumatism. Moreover, the technique is harmful to the environment, contaminating water sources with plant wastes.

More oil, less work

As part of its USDA-funded Food for Progress program, Mercy Corps is demonstrating the benefits of the new mill to farmers from the communities it works with. The mill is one of the key “inputs” — such as seeds, tools and fertilizer — the agency is helping farmers procure so they can protect their health, improve the quantity and quality of their crops and lessen damage to the environment.

A representative from the company that manufactures the mill explains how the process works. After the palm nuts are harvested, they’re piled up and left for a few days while the skin loosens. Farmers then remove the hard caps and chop the nuts with a cutlass (machete). The fruit is boiled for five hours until it’s soft, then poured into the mill. A long pole allows up to six people to turn the crank that grinds the fruit into butter. In the final step, the palm butter is boiled to render it into oil.

“The people who have seen this demonstration are eager to purchase a mill,” says Mercy Corps field program manager Emmett Freeman. “And the first ones to appreciate it are the women who have done most of the hard labor the traditional technique demands. With the mill, they get more oil — for less work.”

The new way is much more efficient. From 30 branches of palm nuts, the mill produces 15 gallons of oil. The same amount of nuts, using the traditional technique, yields only five gallons of oil.

Communities that decide to invest in this palm oil mill contribute 25 percent of the cost (about US$250), while Mercy Corps pays 75 percent (about US$750). This partnership model, in which a good part of the input cost is subsidized, has proven to be an effective approach because farmers who share the cost of their own equipment tend to use it more, value it more highly and maintain it better. Too, cost-sharing is a more sustainable development model over the long term.

Support for markets

Mercy Corps’ Food for Progress program, currently underway in the four central Liberian counties of Bong, Grand Bassa, Margibi and Montserrado, uses market-driven activities to re-establish and improve productive agricultural capacity in the aftermath of the country’s 14-year civil war. We’re also working to support agricultural livelihoods, increase access to food in rural areas and boost income-generating opportunities.

Mercy Corps is increasing agricultural productivity through targeted training and technical assistance, and by providing inputs such as the palm oil mill to farmers. We’re helping area markets function more effectively by improving the linkages between buyers and sellers and supporting agribusinesses and micro-enterprises. We’re also improving farmers’ ability to obtain fair prices for their crops by supporting radio news programs that air practical agricultural information such as market prices and community events.