Sterilised palm fruit before extraction of the palm oil

Over the last three decades, extensive areas of primary tropical forests rich in biodiversity have been cleared and covered with monoculture palm oil plantations, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, destroying critical habitat for many endangered species, including orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants. Concerned about the negative impact of the palm oil industry, activist groups around the globe are putting pressure to stop big business from using palm oil in food, cosmetics, and many other consumer goods.

 But not all palm oil plantations are cutting forests and operating without environmental and social responsibility. There are at least a few committed to the cultivation of palm oil in areas already degraded and as part of reforestation programs that create new jobs to protect ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Natural Habitat’s Neil Blomquist (center in light blue shirt and hat) with staff and farmers

Natural Habitats is a leading supplier of palm oil using organic, sustainable and socially responsible practices, sourced in Ecuador and Sierra Leone. Neil Blomquist, who has over 40 years of experience in sustainable business solutions, brings a different angle to the palm oil conversation. Natural Habitats was started by successful European entrepreneur Alfons van der Aa and his wife, Gaby, an Ecuadorian with a family history in the agricultural community. They saw an opportunity in the organic market and to connect with their roots in Ecuador and to offer an alternative for farmers to grow palm fruit in a way that enriched their lives, their community, and the planet. 

The company was principally funded over the years by the founders, who still own a majority interest, Mr. Blomquist explains. It has taken considerable resources to create the infrastructure in Ecuador and now the second operation in Sierra Leone, Africa, to establish an international platform to develop the US and EU markets.

"To date, all the fruit comes from family farms that had to be converted to organic from conventional; fair trade and RSPO certifications were also required for the supply chain, all of which took time and other resources to develop," he says.

 "There are now over 170 farms in Ecuador and over 1500 farms in Sierra Leone that are producing organic, fair trade certified fruit for processing at oils mills owned and operated by Natural Habitats."

Mr. Blomquist sees one of the biggest challenges in matching the supply chain with the growth in demand for Natural Habitats palm oil, so more farmers are in transition all the time.

"With several years of growth in revenue for Natural Habitats, the farmers and local communities have benefited with a premium price paid for the fruit. A percentage of the sales of all NH products goes back to the farmers and communities to support local social programs, and the conversion of farms to organic has produced a positive effect on the environment and the habitat in the regions where NH operates," Mr. Blomquist explains.

"We have established food processing standards to meet the strict food safety and security requirements of our export markets in North America and the EU."

"The oil mills that NH owns and operates as 100 percent organic production have had substantial investments made to create a zero-carbon footprint and to scale the production to match our growth and quality goals."

Natural Habitats has a group of agronomists that are in the field daily working with the farmers to support them pre- and post-transition to organic, and to introduce growing methods that enhance their farms and create a more diverse ecosystem, including the introduction of intercropping.

One of the biggest challenges for Natural Habitats is overcoming the negative perceptions of environmental and native animal habitat destruction associated with southeast Asia palm oil plantations. 

"While the NGO’s that have helped raise awareness with the public are doing what is needed, they have not been telling the positive side of the story if palm oil is ‘Done Right,' in a sustainable manner that benefits the people and the environment," Mr. Blomquist says.

"With educated consumers that understand the organic and fair trade concepts, there has been a small consumer base that understands the difference, but the general consumer and trade perception is still quite negative."

Mr. Blomquist is the spokesperson for the company's Palm Oil Done Right, an education campaign aimed at telling the positive side of palm oil.

‘Palm Oil Done Right” was formally launched in the fall of 2016, and now has over 20 partners that have joined the program in promoting and educating. Each partner has a dedicated page on the PDR website.

Intercropping with cacao trees that enjoy the shade provided by the palm oil trees

Looking at fair trade business practices, Mr. Blomquist says the farmers are paid a premium over conventional palm oil prices that follow the commodity trading board price for conventional palm oil. They also receive a percentage of NH sales that flows back to their local communities, where they have a say in how these funds are spent.

Sales of the company's organic and sustainable palm oil are increasing. Natural Habitats will produce and sell 15,000 metric tons of oil in 2017 and has experienced 30-40 percent growth per year in sales.

"We have been able to sell to a diverse group of customers in the food, baby food, cosmetics/personal care and animal nutrition in North America and the EU," Mr. Blomquist says.

On recognition and support for RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, he says although a small percentage of consumers understand what RSPO means, being RSPO certified is necessary to meet the needs of our customers to have every tool at their disposal to create a positive perception.

"NH Is certified RSPO Identity Preserved, which means that 100 percent of the oil produced can be traced back to the farms where it originates. RSPO has not been able to live up to expectations in Asia, due to considerable pressure from big corporate interests who continue to operate outside of RSPO standards and operate without proper social and environmental controls," Mr. Blomquist explains.

From an internal philosophical perspective, what NH does with organic and fair trade certification, far surpasses RSPO standards at any level, he adds.

Natural Habitat's headquarters is in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the number one ocean port in the EU, home to the founders and where the primary administrative functions are managed. Social financing options in Holland to support agricultural projects in underdeveloped countries have been used to help finance the company over the years.

Margarita Cobena (left) of  Natural Habitats administration, with palm oil growers Mariana Cobena, Segundo and Mercedes Rodriguez.

Looking at export market expansion, Mr. Blomquist says the company continues to experience rapid growth in North America and the EU and hasn't expanded its reach outside of these regions.

"We will be looking at China and Korea in the coming months as our next international development goal," he says.

On new developments and innovations for 2017, one is the introduction of the first organic palm wax, called Habiwax, that can be used as a key ingredient in organic personal care and candles.

"New initiatives in development will bring new product options to market and new processing methods to improve the quality and nutritional value of palm oil," Mr. Blomquist adds.

"We expect the Palm Done Right movement to continue to build and resonate with the natural/organic community, and to raise awareness with consumers internationally that if the palm is ‘Done Right,' it is the most sustainable source of vegetable oil on the planet."