Organic & Fair Trade Palm Oil
Serendipalm – sustainable palm oil from smallholder farms in Ghana
Palm oil is a primary ingredient in Dr. Bronner’s bar soaps. It gives our bars their hardness, and balances the lathering power of coconut oil while keeping the soap from softening and dissolving too quickly. With rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia causing large-scale environmental degradation and social deprivation, it was imperative that we find a source for palm oil that did not cause new deforestation, endanger crucial habitats or impoverish communities.
We began our search for a sustainable and socially responsible source of palm oil in 2006. With support from the NGO Fearless Planet, we found partners in Ghana’s rural Eastern Region near Asuom. Serendipalm, our Ghanaian sister company, built a small-scale palm oil mill using traditional processes, but with better facilities and more efficient, safer equipment. We then began recruiting local smallholder farmers for conversion to organic practices.
Since the mill began production in 2008, Serendipalm has become the world’s most respected fair trade and organic palm oil project. It works exclusively with smallholder farmers and is the largest local employer in an area that has traditionally provided few reliable jobs. The 200+ workers in Serendipalm’s oil mill, primarily local unskilled women, enjoy working conditions and compensation unheard of in other small palm oil mills. Serendipalm also has attracted some 20 professional staff to Asuom—agricultural engineers, scientists, accounting and administration professionals who appreciate the company’s participatory style of management and its beneficial social impact. They have chosen to live in the countryside, where they can earn a living while making a difference—and many of them have put down roots in the area, starting families and raising children.
Serendipalm buys palm fruits from over 635 family farms with oil palm plots averaging seven acres in size. Farmers are paid fair prices plus an organic premium for their palm fruits, provided with biomass for mulching, training on organic agriculture to improve soil fertility and profitability, and offered interest-free loans for more productive oil palm seedlings. Many of Serendipalm’s oil palm growers also farm cocoa, and had a desire to move away from the extensive use of pesticides which is common in Ghanaian cocoa production—so we began converting them to organic practices and in 2018 will sell our first organic and fair trade cocoa.
In late 2016 we also began implementing dynamic agroforestry concepts, which consist of planned mixed stands of multi-strata tree plantings. Dynamic Agroforestry offers farmers a much higher yield and revenue per acre, higher biodiversity and thus lower pest pressure, as well as the potential for sequestering high amounts of atmospheric CO2. The concepts are being implemented initially on our own two small farming plots, and will be expanded to Serendipalm farmers and across Ghana in the coming years.
The fair trade premiums paid by Dr. Bronner’s and other customers have been used for a range of community development projects: water systems, public toilet facilities, a maternity ward and nurses’ quarters, a pedestrian bridge, lighting, school supplies, mosquito nets to protect against malaria, and “green islands”— the planting of trees in the villages that surround Serendipalm. Since our staff now have about 100 children and grandchildren, we are building a Montessori preschool which will be part of the campus of the “Regenerative Learning Center of Ghana,” an NGO founded by Serendipalm and Dr. Bronner’s and aimed at helping people, land and their communities redevelop.
Serendipalm now supplies fair trade and organic palm oil to Dr. Bronner’s, as well as several European fair trade companies, such as GEPA and Rapunzel. With growing demand for our palm oil, cocoa, and dynamic agroforestry practices we are expanding operations—to the benefit of farmers, workers, and the local community.
Circles of Impact - What we Can Learn from Serendipalm
Written by Lauren Stansbury is Dr. Bronner’s Public Affairs & Media Relations
In 2012, just hired as a communications associate with Dr. Bronner’s, I began working on a project to support fundraising for the purchase of bed nets to curtail malaria, and support the building of a maternity ward in the local health care facility in Asuom, Ghana, where Dr. Bronner’s palm oil is produced. A great success, the “Help Dr. Bronner’s Fight Malaria in Eastern Ghana” campaignsucceeded in raising over $50,000. In the process we also educated many of our consumers about the sustainable, organic and fair trade palm oil used in Dr. Bronner’s bar soaps.
Almost exactly five years later, in November of 2017, I found myself in a small pickup riding over bumpy, orange clay roads through the Eastern region of Ghana, on my way visit Serendipalm.
During my week-long visit I learned that Serendipalm is accomplishing much more than producing palm oil. The company is profoundly impacting the lives of its workers and providing critical resources to the wider regional economy. By pioneering regenerative organic agricultural practices, Serendipalm is also playing a role in combatting climate change.
Dr. Bronner’s sister company Serendipalm sits on a hillside near a main road, surrounded by small homes, free ranging goats and chickens, and beyond that, fields and fields of palm trees. A fair trade operation that employs over 250 workers, and partners with over 700 farmers from the area, Serendipalm produces all of the organic and fair trade palm oil used in Dr. Bronner’s bar soaps, and also sells palm oil to other customers in Europe.
The majority of workers employed by Serendipalm are women, most of whom work cleaning palm fruits by hand. Palm grows in large bunches, like big pinecones, and each orange fruit is covered in a thin husk that needs to be removed before the fruit can be pressed for oil. The women sit in circles, grouped with friends, family and neighbors, and chat while cleaning fruit.
Sitting and speaking with these women, I learned how valuable this job is to them. “This is the best job I could possibly have,” many expressed. “The only reason I will ever quit working at Serendipalm is when I retire,” said one woman, her friend nodding in agreement. “My sisters want to come work here also, but all the jobs are already taken, they have to wait,” another said.
The direct impact the fair trade labor model has on these women’s lives is unmatched by other jobs in the region. Fruit cleaners at Serendipalm are given paid time off and sick leave, employee benefits such as health care and continuing education, and annual bonuses—basic employee rights and benefits often taken for granted by workers in wealthier economies. They also have access to financial support from Serendipalm, such as the ability to apply for a zero-interest loan. I spoke to women who had taken advantage of the loan program to pay for tuition, uniforms and school supplies for children and grandchildren, as well as make repairs to their homes.
Beyond Serendipalm, just down the road, you find Asuom‘s Health Care Center and recently constructed Maternity Ward. Funded in large part by Dr. Bronner’s, the Maternity Ward has dramatically improved the rate of healthy births in a few short years. All mothers in the area can now visit this facility to access pre-natal, delivery, and post-partum care, as well as sexual health services. The fair trade model was crucial in helping empower workers of Serendipalm to identify the need for this facility in their community, organize within the company to allocate fair trade funds for its construction, and bring in Dr. Bronner’s for additional funding support to make this important community health initiative a reality.
Beyond the Maternity Ward, Serendipalm’s positive impact on the Asuom community further extends to the region’s palm farmers. Most palm oil in Ghana is produced by the Ghana Oil Palm Development Company (GODPC)—a Belgian owned agro-industrial corporation that owns over 21,000 hectares of chemical-intensive palm plantations. Thick plumes of black smoke and an acrid odor permeate the air around the massive GOPDC oil pressing facilities. But Serendipalm sources palm fruit exclusively from small-scale organic farmers, whose palm orchards are teeming with diverse flora in the undergrowth beneath wide palm fronds. The dense soil is soft and squishy beneath your feet, and insects buzz all around.
This partnership with local farmers is crucial to supporting the economy and agricultural vitality of the region. Ghanaian farmers maintain ownership of their land. Soil fertility is improved over time, ensuring the livelihoods for farmers and their families. And the palm farmers I met all seemed excited and proud to show me their fields. Like the farmers I know from my homestate of Nebraska, they were proud of their family heritage as farmers.
When we buy fair trade products, we’re supporting economic relationships that are designed to benefit all those taking part in the supply chain, from the smallest newborn child, to the future health of the planet. Via Serendipalm, we’re engaging in a relationship that is helping send children to school, helping women have good jobs and healthy babies, and helping small-scale farmers keep their land. We’re supporting the spread of regenerative organic agriculture knowledge, and from root to fruit, sowing the seed for the future. Just like a crop circle you might see flying over the Midwest where I was raised, in many ways, Serendipalm shows us how the concentric circles of fair trade agriculture ripple outwards, for the benefit of us all. All-One!
Seredipalm - More Thank Fair Trade
An interview with Safianu Moro, who heads up the team at Serendipalm as Managing Director to learn more about his work there and his vision for the project’s future.
How did you come to work at Serendipalm?
I earned my Bsc. in Agricultural Science at the University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana, and for my required national service, went into an agricultural research center that belongs to the University of Ghana. There, I worked with a lecturer, looking at crops such as oil palm and cassava, conducting research on improving soil fertility. After that I completed my master’s in agricultural extension. Right after that I got to know of Serendipalm, through the lecturer that I had worked with at the research center, who happened to also be the Internal Control System (ICS) Manager for Serendipalm at the time. I joined Serendipalm in August 2010 and started out as a field officer, became ICS Manager in 2011, General Manager in 2013 and am now the Managing Director.
How has Serendipalm grown in the time you’ve been here?
Serendipalm has grown a lot, in all regards. For instance consider the number of farmers in our ICS: when I joined there were a total of about 250 farmers; now we have about 635. The number of production workers when I started was just over 100, and now we have about 230.
As far as change at the factory itself: when I started we had two steamers, two clarifiers and two smaller expellers. Now we have six steamers, four clarifiers, and two bigger expellers. We also added structures: we rebuilt the entire fruit cleaning section so it can accommodate more workers at comfortable conditions.
We’ve also grown economically. It was only around 2013 that Serendipalm achieved production sufficiently large to turn a profit. Because of the premium price we pay to farmers and the wages and benefits to our staff we needed to scale to reduce the high cost of production. We’ve also improved efficiencies all along the process, from the farm through processing, notably the oil extraction rate, i.e. the amount of oil produced from the palm fruits. Finally, our community impact through fair trade projects and our cooperation with the community has expanded considerably.
What do you think attracts people to work at Serendipalm?
Many professional staff come from outside the area to work in Asuom, although it is a small town with few of the amenities available in bigger cities. We have staff from Accra, Kumasi, Sekondi-Takoradi and Cape Coast. They are interested in Serendipalm’s work, the social development aspect of the project — the impact their contribution makes to the livelihoods of community members and farmers. Workers come to us because we offer fair wages and excellent benefits, and we work in an atmosphere of respect. Workers call Serendipalm “the listening company.”
What is your long-term vision for Serendipalm?
We plan to increase our production of crude palm oil from 650 to 900+ metric tons per year. We are also adding the production of organic and fair trade cocoa to our program. Many of our oil palm farmers also grow cocoa, and we could produce up to 1000 metric tons of cocoa beans annually, and already have several customers in the U.S. and Germany for that amount. We plan to improve our mill’s oil extraction rate from 16% to 20%, thus cutting cost of production by some 20%. And since we are supplying two German customers, Rapunzel and GEPA, with oil for food products, we need to maintain high quality and keep free fatty acid content consistently below 4%.
Our vision is also to extend community development projects to the subcommunities under the major communities we are working with, such as Asuom, Abodom, Bomso, Abaam. Previous fair trade projects were concentrated in the town centers, so we are looking at encouraging the fair trade committee to extend services to the places where they are needed most, such as water and sanitation projects in the peripheries of the communities.