Oil of Life

Palm oil is central to life in southern Benin. It is used in Vodoun (traditional religion) ceremonies. It is used to cook with. It is used as the main export. It is practically impossible to go two days in a row without eating it in some manner. It is the main agricultural product from my village, and one of the only ones that is made in enough quantities to sell (most other products are sold, but are sold to local markets and are still consumed within the area).

So what is palm oil? And how do you make it?

It comes from palm trees. Americans (at least those of us from the Midwest) typically use the word “palm tree” to cover a variety of trees with fronds. In this case, palm oil comes from the fruits/nuts of these trees (photo courtesy of Wikipedia):


The oil comes from the fruit, which grows in a sort of spiky, pine-cone-like pod, like this (photo courtesy of palmplantations.com.au)


Or, once you climb up a tree (if it’s old enough to be tall), and cut them down with a machete, they look like this (all photos mine from this point forward):


From there, you hack at the pine cone with a machete, to loosen the fruits. When you’ve done this, you are left with the fruits:

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And the core of the pine cone, which you can use as fire wood:


From there, you boil and pound the fruits, to get the red pulp of the fruit. You eventually get the woody fibers from the fruit to separate from the pulp.

DSCF3943(woody fibers, which can be dried and used as kindling for fires).

After that, there is a process of mixing, sometimes by hand or foot, and heating, and mixing again. Then you filter the oil.

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mixing the oil


it’s a messy business!

DSCF3928 DSCF3929 heating the oil over the fire



Eventually, you get a thick, deep red oil, which drives economic activity in Daagbé and is central to every day life.

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For more information about palm oil’s nutrition content check out this NPR story, which also has great links to data on how much palm oil the US imports (2.7 billion pounds!) and the environmental concerns surrounding its production.