Story | 30 Aug, 2019

Cracking open a better source of oil

Palm oil dominates the headlines, and for good reason. It’s a commodity that many of us depend on, yet it takes its toll on whole landscapes – famously triggering the destruction of diverse forests to convert into palm plantations. There is no single solution to the palm oil issue, but there are other options – like Allanblackia oil.

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Photo: IUCN / Pauline Buffle

Rectifying environmental challenges is inherently complicated. A good example lies in the well-known problems caused by palm oil exploitation. So should we ban palm oil? Well… it’s complicated. According to a 2018 IUCN report, a total ban on palm oil would only displace, not halt biodiversity loss and deforestation. More to the point, the demand for oils and fats is not going away. Given the growing global demand for these products, alternatives are part of the solution, but it’s also practical to rethink how we can improve the practices of palm oil plantations to make the entire supply chain more sustainable and environmentally sound. At the same time, especially in Africa where there is little potential (thankfully) to increase palm oil supply, public and private entities seek to invest in other sustainable crops that produce the fats we desire.

One promising source of oil, though at much smaller production scales, comes from the native Allanblackia tree. Naturally-growing Allanblackia fruits are traditionally harvested in the tropical rainforest belt of Africa from Guinea and Ghana in the west, through Nigeria, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of Congo, to Tanzania in the east. Oil from the seeds, with similar properties to palm oil, has been extracted for generations and used for cooking and soap making.

man on left sitting, woman on right crouching, pile of nuts on floor      
Photo: IUCN / Pauline Buffle

Around 2000, the Unilever Company looked into the use of Allanblackia oil to add to their product lines, and began exploring its potential. This led, in 2002, to the Allanblackia Partnership, set up to ensure sustainable production and harvesting of the oil in Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria. For over a decade, the partnership wrestled with the complexities linked to setting up environmentally, socially and economically sustainable supply chains for the raw commodity, which is new to large markets.

Historically, the seeds were collected in the wild – but pressures from sustained wild harvesting can disrupt local ecosystems and create issues around access rights. In light of this situation, to promote conservation of surrounding forests and sustainable management of Allanblackia trees, a harvesting standard was developed by the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) with support from the Swiss Government. Collectors, mainly women, were trained and a minimum price for the seeds guaranteed. But volumes of seeds collected through wild harvesting were seen as insufficient to effectively commercialise the oil at a profitable scale.  

The partnership then decided to start promoting the propagation of Allanblackia trees in mixed plantations as a species of choice for restoration with the co-benefit of increasing volumes of seeds in the mid to long-term. But again, the process proved complicated. This forest tree had not yet been domesticated, and finding the best way to develop seedlings out of wild seeds is not something you can do overnight. However, through a lengthy trial and error process, the tree was eventually domesticated and small-scale nurseries carrying the seedlings created.

sign in middle front, rows of tree seedlings behind      
Photo: IUCN / Pauline Buffle

The next challenge was finding farmers willing to plant Allanblackia on their farms for a return that would only start to benefit them when the tree became mature enough to produce seeds, roughly ten years later. Not to mention issues around the ownership of trees, the viability of future markets, land tenure, competition with established agroforestry systems and fruiting periods. All of these factors combined to limit the appeal and widespread domestication of the Allanblackia tree.

In parallel to the domestication process, Unilever continued investing in wild harvesting, especially in Tanzania. After several years of work, they piloted an Allanblackia-based margarine on the Swedish market. The product, however, didn’t take and was considered a failure. This did not discourage the company from rebranding and piloting a new margarine a year later, this time in France. At long last! Nearly two decades after the initial research into this oil began, a new Allanblackia margarine has become a commercial success in France and, importantly, it is certified ethical (UEBT) and organic.

An international demand for Allanblackia oil emerged, but what about the supply issues?

With time, yields are starting to increase – and interestingly, it’s not happening the same way in each locale. Unlike the landscape devastation that often precedes palm oil plantations, we are seeing diversified, but equally sustainable options for growing and harvesting Allanblackia in different places. Unilever focused primarily on wild collection in Tanzania – while on the other side of the continent, in Ghana, the Allanblackia supply chain has been locally maintained by small entrepreneurs who have developed successful soap businesses. This underscores that a tailored approach for sustainable Allanblackia supply chains is possible, however, it’s still not enough to meet demand.

Despite these successes, volumes of harvestable seeds are still too low to fully develop large markets around Allanblackia oil. If the demand for oil keeps rising, and the trend away from palm oil continues, patient Allanblackia investors and farmers could be rewarded with a sizeable chunk of the sustainable global oil market – making a sizeable difference to them and to biodiversity.


–Blog by Pauline Buffle and Corbett Nash, IUCN Forest Conservation Programme