All products that Atacora import must be sustainably sourced and all producers must be treated fairly. That is why I have spent the past week in a half in Cotonou, verifying a sustainable supply chain of red palm oil.
October 18:Jacob and I took the bus to Cotonou to begin our field study of the red palm oil industry in the South of Benin. We then took a taxi to the administrative Capitol, Porto-Novo to meet up with our red palm Guru Rhylwann. I thought my bush taxi days were long since over! Grueling and unpleasant.
Rhylwann drove us to a village near Come’ in the Zou province to meet with red palm oil producers. There we met Leonard, a super-nice and very smart farmer with significant oil palm groves. Jacob and I asked tons of questions about his farming practices, gender issues, processing oil and the various qualities of the product.
We are trying to identify a producer and a product that is perfect for the American market. This is no easy task, because the minute specificities customers ask for do not apply to the rest of the market; national or international, and there is no lack of customers for the finest palm oil in the world.
We need to work with small producers, so we can guide and supervise the process from the grove to the port. Leonard gave us a variety of samples, and fed us lunch of la pâte (porridge made from corn) with yummy palm and okra sauce.
Once the palms get old and tall, their yield of fruit decreases, but when they are cut down to make room for new plantings, the sap is drained from the trunk, fermented and distilled into sodabie; a fine liquor. We left with some of that, too!
Back to Porto-Novo for a fine street side dinner of braised fish with fried plaintains, thumping Afro-Beat music and pretty servers! Good day!
Jacob needed to hurry back to Boukombé to keep up with our follow-up to organic inspection, so we put him on the bus. It broke down and he did not get back to Natitingou until 4 AM. Poor guy! Rhylwann and I proceeded to visit various government offices to get our permitting straight. I can barely hold my tongue when dealing with these kleptocrats!
I met up with an old Peace Corps pal from yesteryear, Susannah, who just happened to be in Benin visiting her old host family! Itwas fun to catch up and be reminded that the experience stays firmly in the minds and hearts of returned Volunteers.
Rhylwann and I headed to Lokossa, in Benin’s Southwestern Mono province. It rains alot there, and it is spectacularly green and lush, with lots of wild and cultivated palm groves. We were looking to learn about a very special, rare, aromatic and expensive quality of oil, ZOMI, which is made by a handful of women producers unique to this area. We found it! From harvest through cooking and containerization, a strict protocol must be followed. Every producer has her own methods, but ZOMI is always superior in aroma and flavor. Maybe this is what we are looking for? We’ll see how the sampling goes over back home.
We tried to go and visit the very few producers of real, cold-pressed red palm oil near Allada. Palm oil is typically boiled…alot in its manufacture. This stuff is different, looks different, acts differently and has an amazing fruity flavor. The producers are secretive and shy about their process, and did not want us to observe them for fear we would copy and compete. I guess I understand. I’ll have to gain their trust, first, as is often the case in this neck of the woods. We did get some small samples, though.