Castor oil, please

Nasty-tasting castor oil was once the bane of Caribbean childhoods. But now an innovative line of beauty products from Haiti is putting castor beans to a different use — and helping make Haiti’s hills green again, Nazma Muller reports

Seed pods of the castor plant. Photograph by Nuttapong Wongcheronkit/Shutterstock.com

Castor oil. Two words that used to strike terror in the hearts — and stomachs — of Caribbean children. In the old days, at the end of the July–August vacation, we would be given a good “clean-out,” i.e. a tablespoon of castor oil. Its reputation as a laxative was legendary. Over the years, though, as more sophisticated (and better-tasting) products have been imported, castor oil lost its place in the Caribbean family’s medicine cabinet.

In Haiti, though, it is making a comeback — thanks to thirty-two-year-old social entrepreneur Yve-Car Momperousse, founder and CEO of Kreyòl Essence. The company is one of the beneficiaries of the Haiti Forest Initiative, which was launched by President Michel Martelly in March 2013. He declared that his government would plant fifty million trees, an (overly?) ambitious attempt to double the country’s forest cover by 2016. The global average of forest cover is nine to twelve per cent; but parts of Haiti are like a moonscape, with barely two per cent of its original forests left — in large part because of the charcoal industry, providing cooking fuel for many households.

The Haitian government declared 2013 the year of the environment and created a creole slogan, “Yon ayisyen, yon pye bwa” (one Haitian, one tree), as the theme for that year’s Carnival. The campaign to change the Haitian mindset about trees and the need to protect them was to include public education via radio programmes and pamphlets, and an environmental protection component in the school curriculum. Solar, kerosene, and propane stoves were to be advertised as green and sustainable alternatives to wood or charcoal for cooking.

The plan was for the environment ministry to put its dormant environmental surveillance corps on the alert to stop illegal logging from protected areas such as Pic Macaya, one of only two national parks, and its last stand of virgin cloud forest.

“We will cut off access to the two markets — Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien — where the trucks illegally carrying the wood go to get good prices,” Jean François Thomas, the environment minister, said at the time. Environmental legislation would be enforced to hand down fines and prison terms for cutting down trees.

Many were skeptical about the Haiti Forest Initiative. It seemed impossible to control the drivers of deforestation, such as sharecropping for cash crops or use as pasture for animals. But this initiative has the backing of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, former US President Bill Clinton, Hollywood actor turned Haiti advocate Sean Penn, and the “father of micro-business,” Professor Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladesh-born economist who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit. The idea behind the Haiti Forest Initiative is to fund and support entrepreneurs in businesses that have the long-term goal of re-foresting Haiti, thus providing sustainable work for farmers, lowering the island’s food import bill, and identifying alternative sources of fuel so that Haitians won’t need to cut down trees for firewood.

 

Yunus Social Business Haiti has been one of the angel investors behind Kreyòl Essence, providing guidance and expertise, as well as accessing funding for the business. Its castor oil line of products fits the formula for regenerating Haitian forests — and culture — perfectly. Momperousse grew up with her mother putting Lwil Maskriti in her hair to soften it, and on her skin when it was dry. A few years ago, while living in the US, she went to have her hair straightened at a hairdressing salon. The deed was done with a hot comb. However, two days later, while washing her hair, huge chunks of it fell out. Horrified, she tried to think of what could make her hair grow back. And then she remembered the castor oil her mother once used in her hair.

Now, Kreyòl Essence employs fifty Haitian women to make oil from castor beans grown by farmers in Haiti. Momperousse is proud that she can hire these women to produce her line of organic, eco-friendly beauty products. Even though forty per cent of Haitian households are headed by women, many are abused emotionally and physically. For many of Kreyòl Essence’s workers, their job at the castor bean factory gives them the means to buy necessities, like clean water, for their families. Having an income means they now command a certain respect in their households.

Farmers supplying Kreyòl Essence will earn three to five times more than what they have made in the past. The castor oil plant is a perennial, capable of repairing depleted soil with limited rainfall and little input. In addition to the natural ingredients used, the company’s formulas infuse as much castor oil as possible into its pomades, oils, and lotions. Kreyòl Essence prides itself on using the maximum possible amount of shea butter, castor oil, aloe vera, and other ingredients.

A loan of US$100,000 generated via the crowd-funding site Kiva means Momperousse will be able to expand the business and create four hundred new jobs over the next two years. Kreyòl Essence is hoping to cultivate forty thousand castor oil plants in the three years. Keeping them in the ground will remain a challenge — but unlike traditional trees, which are often cut down for fuel, castor oil plants can be grown among fruit and vegetables, so they are not a threat to the food supply.

Momperousse hopes that by planting castor beans Kreyòl Essence can help combat soil erosion, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Momperousse is also proud that demand for Kreyòl Essence products is growing rapidly in the US, as this boosts both foreign exchange earnings and Haiti’s brand. “Unfortunately, when people think of Haiti, they think about the earthquakes, they think about poverty, they think about all of the negatives,” she says. “I think when you see our marketing and you see our products, people are surprised, and they say, ‘I didn’t know this type of richness and beauty exist in Haiti.’ We have to start changing the images that are portrayed for the country, so that people can come visit and enjoy and see what we have to offer.”

The guiding philosophy behind the company, Momperousse explains, is to appeal to the kind of woman who not only wants to look and feel great, but who also cares about the planet that she lives on. Isn’t that all of us?