The Serendipalm story began at the end of 2006 when Dr. Bronner’s started looking for a source of Fair Trade and certified organic palm oil. Dr. Bronner’s only uses organic palm oil—or palm fruit oil to be more precise—only in its soap bars, lending them firmness and preventing them from going soft in the soap dish. Since there was no credible source of Fair Trade palm oil anywhere in the world, in 2007 the company partnered with the NGO Fearless Planet, in Accra, to set up its own organic palm oil project close to the small town of Asuom which had a population of around 10,000 people. Asuom is in the Kwaebibirem District of Ghana’s Eastern Region, around 100 miles northwest of the capital, Accra. Small farmers have been growing oil palms, cacao, citrus, maize and cassava there since the 1970s. The area already had a palm oil infrastructure as well: there are numerous small mills that produce oil for the domestic food market, as well as the major project run by the company GOPDC, with plantations, large-scale processing and purchasing from small farmers. Both served as a comparison for us.
We started by persuading a group of 200 small farmers to switch to organic cultivation. We employed four agricultural technicians and established the Internal Control Systems (ICS) which is required for Fair Trade and organic certification. This was followed by the construction of what started off as a very small processing plant; it began commercial production and export in 2009.
Over the long term the original local management was no longer able to cope with the expansion and the increasing number of farmers and employees, so we gradually built up a professional management team. Today there are around 15 highly motivated employees responsible for agricultural science, accounting, HR management and technology. The fact that they moved from the cities of Accra and Kumasi to the countryside where they enjoy life and their roles at the facility, shows that rural exodus can be halted if there is suitable work available in the countryside. Serendipalm’s success with the production and sale of organic palm oil, and our useful local impact show that responsibly-run trade and production can indeed be at the heart of sustainable rural development: by getting small farmers to switch to more sustainable and more profitable cultivation, by running a business with vision, by creating a good working atmosphere, by partnering with customers who share our vision, and by realizing Fair Trade development projects that motivate local communities.
What does Serendipalm’s future hold?
Our success to date inspires us with new ideas for the further expansion of our project. We are optimizing the production facility and would like to bring it to full capacity that can meet our growing demand, to produce up to approximately 1,000 tons of organic palm oil per year. We are supporting several hundred of our farmers in switching from conventional to organic cacao production, and we are continuously integrating new cacao farmers into our project. We have set up two commercial farms that demonstarte the principles of dynamic forestry. This methods create higher yields, regenerates soil and the sequesters atmospheric CO2. Some 60 of our farmers have already signed for our support to replant their aging orchards using dynamic agroforestry. One important social project will be the establishment of a Montessori kindergarten for the around 100 children and grandchildren of our employees. These production and management employees currently have no attractive pre-school options for the children.
Since 2010, Serendipalm has increasingly been receiving visits from customers, Fair Trade trading organizations, aid programs and NGOs involved in the area of rural development. Our greatest wish: that our example will encourage other companies to make their value chains environmentally and socially friendly. We find it to be worthwhile in so many ways.