Sustainable Palm Oil Production? Wentworth Student Has Plans

November 19, 2018

A man sits on a car with palm trees in the background

Maarouf Barry, BSM ’20, at Eleis Farm in Western Africa 

Maarouf Barry, BSM ’20, is looking to change the way we produce, package, and market palm oil, and he’s using his Wentworth experience to help make palm oil a more environmentally sustainable and socially empowering product.

Eleis Farm (pronounced “Ay-lay-is”) was founded by Barry’s parents in 2013. Based in Boké, Guinea in Western Africa, the organization’s mission is to provide high-quality palm oil to the African diaspora by helping increase smallholder farmers’ yields and reducing their impact on the environment. Barry has since brought his family’s startup to Accelerate, Wentworth’s Innovation + Entrepreneurship Center to create network opportunities and find mentorship.

Barry explained that people tend to have a negative connotation of palm oil, as it has been linked to deforestation and the destruction of habitats. The communication and business branding skills he’s learned through his classes, Accelerate Startup Challenges helped him educate others on how palm oil can be harvested and marketed sustainably.

At Accelerate, he learned how to work in an interdisciplinary team and build upon his entrepreneurial skills. He conducted research and learned about the needs and values of the market. He brainstormed ideas for projects and jump started them. He soaked up the world of opportunity afforded by Eleis Farm’s selection to be a part of MassChallenge, the largest accelerator program in the world. He took in all that he could from mentors and industry leaders.

He brought those experiences back to Africa and applied them to help make the startup friendly to the environment and socially empowering. He also saw the concepts he learned in his Wentworth classes come to life, especially the importance of having a niche market, something that Department of Management Associate Professor Michael Mozill had taught in his “Principles of Marketing” class.

“The African communities around the world tend to be a niche market,” Barry said. “Coming from Guinea, it also played an important role not only to be able to give back to my community within the States, but also to my home country.”

Eleis Farm

Eleis Farm markets toward the African diaspora, including the African community in New York City where several African specialty food stores exist. Palm oil is a staple of the West African diet, and the demand for sustainably produced palm oil is higher than ever.

To that end, Eleis Farm is working with smallholder farmers who already have their own functioning farms. This eliminates the need for deforestation, and farmers can even use their land to grow multiple crops. Eleis Farm has also protected about 25 acres of inland forest with one of their initiatives.

Eleis Farms has also been implementing blockchain technology in their quest to be more sustainable. This allows every user to know the exact journey their palm oil takes, from the seed to the plate. Through tools such as Google Earth time lapses, users can trace the whole process of how Eleis Farm harvests, packages, and markets each bottle of palm oil.

“Users can see how much the farmer made, how big his farm is, and a little biography from the farmer,” Barry said. “We give them access to a Google Earth image that they can trace back up to five years to see whether or not the farm is located on a piece of deforested land, because we truly want to provide that sense of sustainability.”

These same farmers experience benefits themselves, benefits that include better living conditions, healthier diets, higher incomes, and sustainable income activities. Eleis Farm also employs women farmers in a traditionally male-dominated area.

“That income has a higher chance of being delivered toward the children and the rest of the family,” Barry said of dual income households. “It’s money that can be used for cooking, education, and school supplies, things like that.”

Currently, Eleis Farm works with 130 families today all over Guinea. Barry is optimistic for the future of Eleis Farm and sustainable agriculture in general, because more than half of the world’s uncultivated land is in Africa.

“Having this balance between this higher education we have in Boston with all the tech and bright minds and that endless potential within that African continent is a really interesting dynamic to work with,” Barry said. “It definitely leads to really fun and unique innovations.”

--Samuel Kim

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