Since 2016, two more DME Units have been built in Rivercess County..
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Liberia Pure – A Universal Outreach Project in Liberia, West Africa
Liberia is a small West African country that has a population of just under 5 million and is situated 6 degrees north of the equator. The 565 km tropical coastline makes it the perfect growing environment for growing Coconuts.
Liberia has gone through some exceedingly difficult times over the past 20 years. At the end of their civil war which killed more than 250,000 people, they were left with limited access to electricity and clean water, along with poor road conditions, corruption, and the Ebola pandemic.
Kent Bubbs and his wife Landis Wyatt of 'Universal Outreach' - a humanitarian organisation based in Vancouver, Canada - are located in Liberia and are dedicated to the development of a strong and robust economy that will create jobs and help to put cash in the hands of those who need it most. Within their economic development program for Liberia, the focus is on bee-keeping and virgin coconut oil (VCO) production. Both economic initiatives work from a similar model, which is “demand driven”. It is critical that the focus is on niche markets which have a strong current and long-term demand.
Kent and Landis started to work with the good people of Kokonut Pacific in 2015 to see if there was opportunity for developing the DME VCO system in Liberia. The initial DME Unit was built in a town called Cesto City, Rivercess County. When doing a viability assessment, it was found that it has the largest concentration of coconuts in the country and is the closest to the capital city of Monrovia. After speaking with the local communities, who embraced the idea, the first DME Unit was built in 2016. You can read more about this in the project’s first case study: Establishing VCO in Liberia, West Africa
Since then, two more DME Units have been built in Rivercess County, one in Jaslo town, and one in Tembo town.
There have been many challenges along the way, and we will use this opportunity to share those in this second case study.
Because Liberia Pure, a social enterprise business, was started and designed to be ultimately the buyer of honey and virgin coconut oil produced by the local people, it is Liberia Pure’s responsibility to create demand through product development, marketing, sales, and distribution. In the DME VCO system this is called the DME Hub.
This first DME Unit was constructed with the purpose to better understand the DME process, test the level of interest of the communities in the area, understand how the buying of coconuts works and to have a centralised place for people to come and sell their coconuts to be processed into VCO for Liberia Pure branded products for market.
SUPPLY OF NUTS
The challenge with this model was not everyone was willing to sell their coconuts to Liberia Pure. They had existing customers they were not willing to give up and their prices were too high for Liberia Pure to make oil at a competitive market rate.
At this point the model shifted to Liberia Pure buying the oil pressed by the coconut owners at Liberia Pure’s DME Unit.
This model is working better, and the coconut owners are making 40-60% more than just selling the coconuts. The other big advantage is that they receive remuneration directly once the oil is sold, unlike selling coconuts to the produce market vendors where they are often waiting several months for payment, and sometimes do not get paid at all.
However, there are challenges with getting a continuous supply of coconuts due to a particular cultural tradition specific to this region of Liberia. On the coconut plantations, once the mature coconuts start dropping to the ground, there is a big problem with theft. The local communities manage this by putting a ‘sanction’ on the plantation. This means anyone who enters the plantation and steals coconuts will get the ‘Africa Sign’ put on them which is a curse that can kill you. The fear is effective in keeping the criminals out. However, to remove the ‘sanction’ requires a ‘Medicine Man’ coming and performing the appropriate rituals. This is very costly. Most of the plantations are cooperatives, owned and operated by many people who all need to fork out cash to pay the Medicine Man and the reality is that not everyone has sufficient cash on hand at the same time. This causes the difficulties in nut supply and maintaining continuous production of oil.
The hope is that in future they will see the benefits which come with continuous production of VCO and will shorten their sanctions or eliminate them altogether.
Jaslo is a very remote area that is only accessible by canoe and motorbike along a challenging single-track trail. It is situated right on the beach with extensive coconut groves surrounding it.
Certain members of the community of Jaslo had a desire to work together to produce VCO. An agreement was made in 2019 by which they would build the DME Unit facility. Universal Outreach would provide cement and zinc for the roof, and extensive training, while Liberia Pure would install the equipment, and provide the markets for the oil. The equipment arrived in June 2020 and one month later production started.
Because of Jaslo’s remote location it was not possible to bring in most of the materials required for the construction of the Dryer, namely the stainless-steel sheets and concrete blocks. Therefore, a prototype for a new 2nd generation Dryer system was developed incorporating a steel frame, a fire compartment, dryer top and chimney, similar to a home-built BBQ. After testing, a few modifications were made to speed up the drying time. This method takes 1.25 hours to dry one batch of 3.5kg of grated coconut. This was satisfactory so more Dryers were made and installed.
The next challenge was in Operations Management, that is, setting up a system/roster as to who gets to use the DME Unit and when. Before this was even done, many of the plantation owners had already de-husked their coconuts ready to split and make oil. However, while they waited their turn, rodents started to eat the coconuts, resulting in a loss of around 400 coconuts.
We also discovered there was insufficient manpower to run the DME Unit. This was underestimated by both the community and Universal Outreach. The plantations are owned by the elders and the youth would earn an income from working at the DME Unit. However most of them attend school, which is highly encouraged, but it means a large portion of each week has only the elders working and this impacts the quantity of oil produced. Currently they can utilise 400-600 coconuts per day for 3 days each week (when the sanctions are not in place).
Jaslo has the longest ‘sanction’ period in the region, further compounding the lower production of oil, but it is hoped that in time the benefits of producing oil continuously will eliminate the need to apply ‘sanctions’.
In March 2021, Jaslo started using the 3rd generation Dryer, which we call the Pot Dryer. This has really helped increase the drying time from 1.25 hours to 45 minutes per batch of the grated coconut which in turn has sped up overall production of oil and moving coconuts through the facility. The Pot Dryers work as a set of two by drying 1.75kg in each pot at the same time. This fills one cylinder ready for pressing. Each set of two pots shares one chimney and dries the grated coconut at short intervals. With four sets (of two pots) there is a steady continuous flow to the press.
Tembo has been the breakthrough site regarding production. The DME Unit is owned by a family and operated by the head of the family. They have large plantations that are both owned and leased from others. In their first production, with the help of Liberia Pure’s production team training them on quality control and all aspects of the production process, they pressed over 1000 litres of oil. Because we are using the Pot Dryers here as well, we modified the cylinder hopper which usually hangs off the long DME Dryer unit to be free standing.
While the Pot Dryers have been a good solution, they are positioned too low to the ground, that is they are too close to the heat source and the pots can get too hot when burning coconut shells.
The now new 4th generation Dryer is very close to the original 1st generation DME Dryer but shorter in length. Two 4’ x 4’ ‘Clay’ Dryers, instead of one long 8’ Dryer. Each Clay Dryer shares one chimney positioned between the two. The reason to build a shorter one is simply the difficulty with access to these locations. The roads in Liberia are terrible and hinder the movement of goods, especially during the rainy season, being June to October.
The Clay Dryer is designed for one batch of 3.5kg grated coconut and because it is higher and further away from the heat source should work better. The bricks under the top will help distribute the heat more evenly and dry the coconut quicker. The multiple Dryers, working at 15-minute intervals will speed up the process and therefore increase productivity.
FUTURE FOR LIBERIA PURE
DME’s future development in Liberia is looking positive. We are hoping to build two new DME Units in 2022. After preliminary assessment of locations, Sino County has been identified as having favourable potential. There are large plantations that are community, individual and group owned. Once the dry season returns, Liberia Pure and Universal Outreach will travel to Sino and finalise location and ownership. There is good indication that transporting the produced oil to Monrovia could be done by water and this is a great advantage and would allow for year-round production.
Liberia Pure believes organic certification is a critical component to adding value to exports. However, because of the big expense associated with getting certified, the focus will be on first building the international markets with the current products and once established embark on getting certified.
Universal Outreach is working closely with Liberia Pure in product development and international relations. Liberia Pure just signed a contract with an American distributor to sell the soap, being the best-selling coconut oil product so far. Because the soap is selling so well, we are utilising as much oil as possible to maintain the demand for the growers and producers. Currently the price point for selling the oil into the local market is too high but once DME VCO is set up in Sino County we are hoping that will change. The cost of doing business and the price for coconuts is much lower and should bring the price point to a level the local markets can accept. Liberia Pure is dedicated to the development of products and markets that can help maintain the demand for these products.
EQUIPMENT & PROCESS
Once the changes to the Dryers are at a point when we are happy with the efficiency and result, we believe the DME VCO system will work very well for Liberia. We may even consider going back to the original Dryer design; however, it would be built with clay bricks instead of cement bricks along with some other changes to the design as follows:
Build a cement post and beam structural frame and use only clay bricks for the fill. Be sure to bring the tie beam all the way around the front of the dryer.
Add another opening halfway so you can have fire in the middle of the furnace as well as at the front. This will help to dry the meal at the cold end faster.
Take the large steel front off the Dryer and use 2 layers of clay bricks at the front with 2” angle bar embedded in the mortar joint as the top and bottom for the small metal sliding door.
Line the entire inside of the Dryer with the clay bricks.
Make the chimney out of clay brick that goes into an aluminium chimney.
Have supports for the mesh wire, clay brick and stainless-steel top 8” apart at the end where the fire is. The current spacing is not enough and we have had problems with the supports dropping due to heat and cracking cement.
Create a metal cradle out of angle bar to help support the filling hopper.
Use an aluminium angle bar around the perimeter where the wood currently is and use a small piece of wood to stop you from getting burnt on the aluminium. The key here is that the wood is not touching any meal and the seal onto the stainless-steel top is better.
We are discovering that no matter what type of Dryer, it takes 45 minutes to 1 hour to dry each batch of 3.5 kg of grated coconut.
We are incredibly happy with the quality of the presses as they are robust and work very well. The shear pins are the only challenge we have sometimes, but this system was built for Africa. The graters are generally good, except for problems with the switches from time to time, but we found that simply hard wiring them and using a power board with a shut off switch works well. We put voltage stabilizers on all the graters to be sure the motors get the correct current. We don’t have an alternative here as it would be exceedingly difficult to get a motor like this in Liberia.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF VIRGIN COCONUT OIL
Palm and vegetable oils are still the oil of choice in Liberia. We would like to do a large campaign on the health benefits of virgin coconut oil in the hope that people will start to incorporate it into their diets more, but this kind of change takes time, and we need to work on our price point first.
Ultimately the fact that communities can increase their income from the sale of virgin coconut oil by 40-60% is what gets us excited and keeps us working towards the development of a stronger economy and an established virgin coconut oil industry here in Liberia.