By Michael Roberts

Liberia is rich in natural resources. The land itself is one of the most suitable locations in sub-Saharan Africa for agriculture. Despite these natural resource advantages Liberia remains poor, and its natural resources largely untapped due to lack of innovation or impetus to bring about any serious shift from the country’s heavy reliance on extractive economic activities to agro industries that spur investments and empower the citizens.

 

Take for example the oil palm tree which is native to many parts of Liberia. With a climate that is hot and tropical, oil palm trees thrive naturally without much cultivation. Of late, multimillion franchises have begun pouring in the country to invest in the sector, but the oil palm industry remains largely unexploited by a vast majority of the citizenry, especially those who live in the hinterlands.
That was before young, enterprising Liberians like Mahmud Johnson decided to jump into the sector and change the oil palm script for good.

Mahmud’s Johnson “J-Palm” story is a compelling one that should inspire many enterprising young Liberians wishing to enter the business world but hesitant about the sector to exploit.
Madmud narrates that his impulsion to change the agricultural script did not happen overnight, but grew out of an uncompromising desire to make a difference through entrepreneurship as far back as his childhood days.

As a young university graduate with a graduate degree in economics from the Dartmouth College in the United States, Mahmud was torn between returning home to contribute his quota to the national recovery process, and remaining in the USA to explore greener pastures.

“When I completed college, I was thinking about what to do next with my life: do I stay in the US or do I come back home? And when I do come back home, what should I do with my time? Then I realized that I was more interested in business because it has the potential to deal with most of the social challenges we have in Liberia; whether it is unemployment or food insecurity. Doing business has the potential to solve most of those problems. So, I was interested in doing business,” he tells TCI in an exclusive interview.
His desire to engage in business was resonant but the kind of venture to explore did not occur to him until a conversation ensued between Mahmud and his aunt. She used to sell palm oil. The prospect of adding value to palm kernel was never part of his investment possibilities.

“She would go to rural areas, buy palm oil and sell it. And she was telling me that she ran out of business because she couldn’t find palm oil,” Mahmud says.

Even though there are lots of palm trees in Liberia, they don’t necessarily translate into palm oil. Even the way people produce palm oil in Liberia, it is very labor-intensive and scaring to the extent that nobody see such work pleasing.

“It takes a very long time to produce a gallon of palm oil. I knew that that was one of the reasons why we had this problem of oil shortage at some points in the year. Then, I came across a USAID study that they had done showing that about 35% to 40% of the palm trees in Liberia are not harvested every year: the palm nuts would get rotten on the trees because people do not have enough machinery to process enough palm. But then, the same USAID started this program where they had trained people here in Liberia to use scraps to produce palm oil machines. So, that’s how it dawned on me to start this venture,” Johnson disclosed.

According to Mahmud, the J-Palm project started off low-scale in Todee, upper Montserrado County with few palm oil mills where people in the area would bring their palm to produce oil. Of course, the mills helped to enhance productivity because, instead of people spending eight hours a day to produce three gallons of oil, they would spend no more than 30 minutes to get the same quantity of oil. The process was a lot faster for the palm oil producers, who made more money, especially as they were not buying the palm. It is just right there in the bush.

The spinoff to this new idea of Mahmud’s J-Palm was that oil palm producers would use his machine and then pay his company with some oil.

But by this time, the J-Palm boss had realized that there was another side of the palm oil business than just the production of red oil.

“We had all these palm kernels after producing the palm oil. What do we do with the palm kernels? People would just throw the kernels away or burn them. I became interested in palm kernels. As I started to research, I realized that there is very strong demand for palm kernel oil in the soap industry. People who make the white soap usually use palm kernel oil. People don’t use palm oil that much except for the ‘iron’ soap. All the other forms of soaps are made from palm kernel oil,” he intimates.
He became more and more inspired to delve into kernel oil production after discovering the high demand for palm kernel oil, which compels people to travel as far as Guinea and other neighboring countries to buy the product.

Given the traditional usage of kernel oil in Liberia, J-Palm decided to transcend the value chain.
Since palm kernel oil has so many fascinating uses including growing the hair, smoothening and moisturizing the skin, Mahmud and his J-Palm team decided to process the oil little bit further to meet the demands of consumers craving clear and fragrant coconut oil, the ultimate for skincare and beauty products.
“So, we’ve decided now to focus more on producing refined kernel oil for the wider market. It’s a great progression up the value chain – first we started with palm oil; now, we’re making Kernel Fresh which is more of a consumer product for skin care and hair growth,” he explains.

At the moment, J-Palm has 34 Liberians in its employ, with plans to increase human resource for production, marketing and sales.

Quizzed about public buy-in for his Kernel Fresh product, Mahmud is optimist that the idea will catch on.
“When the idea came to me, I didn’t just go directly into production. I started to use Kernel Fresh on my own skin to see the effect; and you know what? It really cleared my skin. I also realized that the product is also good for removing stretch marks and other marks on the skin. That was very exciting. In my house, everybody, including my mom, started using it. That’s how I gained the confidence that the product actually works. But of course, if we had a large customer base, we could produce about 4,000 bottles everyday because we have the capacity to increase production. We have three machines now: two in Monrovia and one in Gbarnga. It is not a question about our capacity. It is just that this is a new product so it is taking time for people to know about it. The sale is growing but it will take a while for people to know about it,” Mahmud averred.

On the average, according to the J-Palm boss, the factory sells 150 to 200 Kernel Fresh bottles a month at US$3 per bottle. “We are trying to do a lot of online marketing so that more people can know about the product. It is a visual product because it’s hard to describe this product on the radio for people to know what it is. People have to see it and know what you are talking about,” Mahmud says.
“It is not just the product that is exciting but the whole story behind the product. Here is palm kernel that many people consider to be useless, to take this thing and transform it into something that is working on people’s skin in terms of strengthening the skin tone and removing diseases – that’s amazing!” Mahmud says with passion burning in his eyes.

According to the young entrepreneur, the Kernel Fresh story will never be complete without factoring in the thousands of people in the rural parts of the country who are making a living out of palm kernels that they would normally throw away.

“Just by buying palm kernel from people in the rural area, you are empowering them to do more. As a result of this innovation, people are no longer throwing away palm kernel. Within an hour or more, some people can make about 500 to 1,000 Liberian dollars. That’s a huge difference. This is the real story behind Kernel Fresh, how we are adding value to our own resources here and doing it in a way that strengthens our economy,” Mahmud says.

Within just two and a half years after its introduction into the Liberian market, J-Palm’s Kernel Fresh is making an impact. But whether the public will fully trust a local beauty product over the thousands that flood our markets is the million dollar question.

“Our market is saturated with all kinds of imported products and most of the time the lotions that people use on their skins contain too much chemicals. We are not really discussing the side effects of these products here in Liberia; but in other countries, there’s active discussion ongoing about the usage of foreign products for skin care. We need to stop importing all that stuff because when we import all those skin care products here, we are also helping to develop other people’s economies. You can imagine what would happen if all Liberians decide to use made-in-Liberia products. We can build strong industries here based on local demand even though our economy is not as large as other countries,” Mahmud admonishes.

With his Kernel Fresh brand kicking off, Mahmud’s ultimate goal is to become a leading brand producer of skin care products based on oil palm. There is a potential to do so much more including soap, lotion, hair conditioner, shampoo. The sky is just the limit with these endless possibilities.

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