J-Palm Liberia: Transforming sustainable palm oil through mobile blockchain technology

J-Palm Liberia, a start-up supported by the GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaptation, recently secured an additional $1.2 million in investment from USAID as part of their ongoing efforts to revolutionise the sustainability of wild palm oil in West Africa through cutting-edge technology. This blog explores the innovative methods employed by the organisation, including leveraging mobile and blockchain technology to enhance transparency in the palm oil supply chain and strengthen the climate resilience of communities across Liberia.

Liberia: re-writing the palm oil narrative

Globally, the palm oil industry is often synonymous with deforestation, habitat destruction, and environmental harm driven by profit motives. Local communities can suffer displacement, and endangered species lose their habitats in the pursuit of palm oil production. Liberia, however, presents a unique perspective. Here, palm oil grows naturally in the wild, thriving in conditions of high rainfall and a tropical climate. Rural communities manage palm trees collectively, overseen by local chiefs and elders, ensuring that palm oil cultivation aligns with community interests and avoids the social and environmental devastation often linked to large-scale commercial production.

Despite Liberia’s distinctive approach, rural communities are grappling with the impacts of climate change. Approximately 250,000 individuals depend on palm oil harvesting for income, with Liberia contributing 43% of the remaining Upper Guinea forests in West Africa. Unpredictable rainfall and poor infrastructure to connect palm oil from forests to cities have led communities to explore alternative income sources, such as charcoal production and logging.

To date, rural households have relied on traditional methods of extracting palm oil, resulting in an annual loss of over 35% of Liberia’s palm fruit. Inefficient manual processing techniques has led to an additional 50% oil loss. This results in significant income losses as valuable resources – specifically the palm kernels – are often discarded. A lack of access to technological solutions has further hampered opportunities for smallholder communities, underscoring the pressing need for innovative and sustainable solutions to improve palm oil production in Liberia.

J-Palm: Transforming the sustainability of wild palm oil with tech solutions

In 2013, Mahmud Johnson launched ‘J-Palm’ inspired by a conversation with his aunt who faced challenges sourcing a reliable palm oil supplier. The company started with one overarching goal: to develop a sustainable model to create premium quality consumer goods for Liberians, while simultaneously strengthening rural livelihoods.

J-Palm began by tackling the rural usage technology gap. They introduced new machines – or ‘mini-mills’ – and waste processing facilities to assist farmers in rural communities produce more oil, significantly reducing processing time by 90% and water use by 70%, while enhancing extraction rates by 50%-100%. The mini mills allow J-Palm to purchase and transfer the oil for traders to acquire and resell. The business has since expanded to palm kernel oil and beauty products. J-palm buys palm kernels and processes them into clean energy products and beauty products for local and international markets. Their investment in high-end packaging and strong branding has helped the J-Palm to achieve particularly strong profit margins for their beauty offerings. This helps to bolster the start-up’s overall commercial sustainability.

J-Palm has since turned their attention to a challenge at the forefront of the palm oil industry: traceability. Growing demand from global consumers has forced companies to be more conscious of their environmental impact. The increasing market demand for transparency in the palm oil supply chain underscores the pivotal role that mobile and digital technology can play to trace and verify the production, processing, and sourcing of palm oil. By fostering greater accountability and sustainability, traceability allows suppliers to demand higher market rates for sustainable palm oil which, in turn, improves the proceeds received by farmers.

GSMA funding: Empowering Liberian palm harvesters through mobile-enabled solutions

With support from the GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaptation, J-Palm has developed two mobile apps to improve the transparency and traceability for Liberian wild-harvest palm oil supply chains.

The ‘Traceability app’ seeks to better connect harvesters with buyers and helps agents track the amount of palm oil produced and sold by each harvester. Harvesters can be paid through mobile money for sales made through J-Palm agents. To date, this new technology has been rolled out to 20 communities and a recent survey found that 98% of harvesters selling to J-Palm agents reported that the app helped them improve their overall income. The incorporation of mobile money streamlines the payment process for those selling through J-Palm agents, eliminating the need for them to travel to receive payment. The app has also enabled the company to demonstrate traceability of the harvest from farm to the factory, and subsequently gain ‘Organic Certification’.

Meanwhile, J-Palm has been testing their new ‘Tree Health’ app which includes features such as photo capture, unique ID and geo-tagging. This is designed to assist harvesters in securing payment for the carbon absorbed by the trees, incentivising them to avoid cutting down palm trees and help to combat climate change.

The integration of blockchain and artificial intelligence stands as a potential game-changer for Liberian harvesters, offering verifiable evidence of wild palm tree forest preservation. This innovation contributes to income growth and the security of livelihoods for thousands of harvesters in rural communities. Additionally, this data reinforces the credibility of the J-Palm supply chain, ensuring consistent organic certification and facilitating entry into new international markets to sell at a premium price. This will, in turn, allow them to pay higher prices to the farmers for their products.

Looking ahead

The GSMA’s grant will continue to support J-Palm’s ambitious plans to scale into 2024, with further testing and rollout of the apps among more communities. For the GSMA, our partnership with J-Palm offers a unique opportunity to better understand how blockchain can help to build a permanent digital record of the palm oil value chain, compiling data about the mills, refineries and processors where it is handled – and how this can help to strengthen rural communities’ resilience against climate change.

Learn more about the 12 successful start-ups across Africa and Asia supported by the first round of The GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaptation here.

The GSMA Innovation Fund for Climate Resilience and Adaptation is an initiative designed to help accelerate the testing, adoption and scalability of digital innovations that enable the world’s most vulnerable populations to adapt, anticipate and absorb the negative impacts of climate change. It was launched in 2022, with support from UK International Development from the UK Government and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

This initiative is funded by UK International Development from the UK government and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and is supported by the GSMA and its members.
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