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Better Palm Oil Improves Diets in Sierra Leone

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 16 May 2012
Close-up of Joe-Lahai Sormana (Courtesy of Joe-Lahai Sormana)

Joe-Lahai Sormana

This is part of a series about African-born entrepreneurs.

Washington — In Sierra Leone, palm oil is an essential cooking ingredient.

The country consumes as much as 40,000 metric tons of the oil a year, and most of it traditionally has been extracted from palm fruit using inefficient, labor-intensive methods, according to some business experts.

During the decadelong civil war that ended in 2002, Sierra Leone’s palm-oil processing mills were damaged or destroyed.

Enter Joe-Lahai Sormana. Born in Sierra Leone, Sormana relocated as a teenager to the United States with his family. He continued his education, and eventually earned a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

But Sormana wanted to create jobs and contribute to the economy in the country of his birth. He established Palm Fruit Processing Company Ltd.

Sormana’s company won a grant in a 2010 business-plan competition sponsored by Western Union Company and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Sormana used the money to purchase a modern mill and land for it in Sierra Leone.

In early 2011, his company began to produce palm oil.

“Our oil will carry health benefits as it is clean and has a lower level of saturated fat,” Sormana said. He is able to sell the oil at reasonable prices because of the efficiency of the mill. He believes that the company’s pricing strategy and product quality give it a competitive advantage.

The win in the business-plan competition is more than just money to invest in the business, he said; it “validates our business model and value.”

Man on ladder pouring contents of pail into large cylinder (Courtesy of Joe-Lahai Sormana)

A Palm Fruit Processing Company employee pours palm fruits into a digester that will separate the flesh from the nuts and press the flesh into oil.