Palm oil manufacturing

06 March, 2011 • Viktor Bengtsson • 3 minutes to read

(Post from old blog.)

While in Sanoyie I took some photos of traditional palm oil manufacturing. Oil of the oil palm fruit is the main edible oil used in Liberia (along with many other African countries) and these kinds of small manufacturing sites can be found all over the country.

In Liberia it is with oil as with most other commodities: a large portion of consumption is covered by imports. But in many communities, small scale oil production is still an important source of income.

Site for making palm oil

A site for making palm oil.

The bunches are harvested by climbing to the top of the palm tree and cutting it down (for this particular area this is done by the gentleman in the picture). The fresh fruit is cut from the bunches and left to ripen further for a couple of days.

Cutting fruits from palm bunches

Cutting the fruit from the oil palm fruit bunches.

The fruit is then boiled (in this case in old oil barrels), and if the whole process looks dirty and unsanitary, it's because it is.

Barrels for boiling oil palm fruit

Barrels for boiling the fruit and reducing the oil.

Inside a barrel for boiling oil palm fruits

The fruit is boiled here. Hygiene is not a priority.

The boiled fruits are then pounded to separate pulp and trash from the nut and everything is transferred to a washing pit. I've seen different models on these, but in this case it is just a pit dug in the ground. Here, most of the large trash is removed along with palm kernels and the oil is skimmed from the top (still containing a fair amount of water) and moved to a second barrel.

A barrel for pounding fruit

The boiled fruit is pounded here.

A pit for washing boiled and pounded fruit

The boiled and pounded fruit is "washed" here.

The oil-water-pulp mixture is then boiled and reduced a second time and the oil skimmed from the top and transferred to a pot. In the pot the oil is skimmed for the last time and bottled or filled in jugs. Whatever water-oil that remains is re-boiled with a second batch of oil and skimmed yet again.

Reduced palm oil mixture

The oil-pulp-water-contaminants mixture is further reduced.

The resulting oil is vivid red colour and is rich in nutrients along with a host of contaminants and undesirable compounds which affects the taste and smell of the oil and significantly reduces its shelf-life.

In a more advanced production the, oil would at this stage be refined, deodorized and bleached. Out of these processes comes the oil that can be found on the supermarket shelves.

Palm oil skimmed from top of mixture

The palm oil is skimmed from the top of the mixture. Ready for dinner!

Before Liberia's war(s) and political instability there were a wealth of relatively large plantations operating at full production and feeding medium scale oil mills (we have one in Foya, or rather what's left of it). The plantations are still there, but in the absence of replanting most of them are several decades past peak production, and the processing facilities are gutted rusting skeletons.

In the last few years there has been a decent number of investors who have expressed interest in investing in Liberia's oil palm industry (investors being rather good at just that... expressing interest). But with land becoming scarce and more expensive (as well as prohibited from production for environmental reasons) in the main palm oil producing regions in the world (Malaysia, Indonesia etc.) two large companies have signed concession agreements with the Government of Liberia: Sime Darby and Verdant (incorporated as Golden Veroleum Inc. in Liberia). The last of these, signed in the second half of 2010 with Golden Veroleum Inc., calls for a massive 200,000+ hectare palm plantation (that's about 500,000 acres for you yanks). As farms go, that's pretty big!