After managing businesses in television and tourism, Shirley Lindo returned to Jamaica with a desire to create a community-enriching enterprise. As the daughter of a St. Ann farmer, she chose natural products, free of additives, that could be grown on her "Outa Earth" plot in the old Bernard Lodge sugar lands.
Since castor beans grow fairly easily on Jamaica’s plains, she settled on the production of castor oil, a versatile commodity valued as a food additive, manufacturing element, cosmetic ingredient and healing agent. As a testament to the oil’s quality, it has won blue ribbons at the Denbigh Agricultural show, Jamaica’s largest, three years running.
Shirley discovered, after a few years of producing the oil using a laborious traditional process and selling to local and American customers, that her product generated large quantities of waste. Rising everywhere were piles of bean shells and leftover bean pulp, plus the leftover trash from another crop, the moringa seeds that were becoming a popular health food on the island.
After doing some research on uses for these agricultural byproducts, Shirley applied for a grant to use them to develop a sustainable soil conditioner and low-smoke briquettes.
From 300 entrants, Shirley was one of 11 winners selected from across the CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market) region, and one of four women in that group. Her initial progress was slow, as she grappled with the cost of scaling up castor oil production in order to create the critical mass required for producing the newer products more efficiently.
In the process, there were several challenges that might have caused a weaker person to quit.
First, she had to create an ever-expanding network of castor bean growers, even though funds were limited for purchasing them.
Then she had to determine the best combination of castor pulp and charred moringa trash to create the perfect slow-burning, low-smoke briquette.
Then she hit a major snag. Castor beans contain the deadly compound ricin, which can cause illness or death if ingested. The process on her farm was found to contain too much of the substance. For weeks, Outa Earth had to curtail production while the Caribbean Climate Innovation Center (CCIC), through its local partner the Scientific Research Council (SRC), analyzed her operations and made recommendations.
Undaunted, Shirley hit the road, traveling to the parishes of Clarendon, St. Ann, Portland, St. Mary and Manchester to places like Lionel Town, Salmon Town and Free Town where there are reliable supplies of castor beans and many of the rural folk have few economic prospects.
"They literally put on the fire at home before they come and meet up with us," Shirley says of some suppliers, “so they can buy meat to make a meal. They’re depending on my business.”
The castor oil production process was given the green light after the SRC recommended specific benchmarks for heat applied in the "mudding" (pulping) stage at the start of the process, making any ricin in the chain negligible. With more beans to supplement her crop, and with funds beginning to come in from her grant, Shirley embarked on a campaign of vertical integration and expansion designed to diversify products, increase production and widen income streams.
Regular production of oil at Outta Earth yields about 14 gallons a day. It requires four such boilings to fill a 55-gallon drum for export. Because the boiling is so labor-intensive – requiring that the enormous kettles be stirred by hand for about 10 hours – Shirley is investigating the addition of motorized industrial agitators that can operate on different speed settings.
The farm has either planned or is implementing a new factory building and a generator room; expanded solar drying capability; a briquette machine and a marketing plan to manage the commercial products. To meet the increase in demand, two additional boiling stations are being added at the farm.
Acknowledging the World Bank’s support, Shirley said, “The grant from the Caribbean Climate Innovation Center has given us the capacity to get equipment and to properly shore up the business.”
After shipping 200 pounds of castor oil late in 2014, the operation now fills orders averaging 800 pounds a month. An order received in May calls for 11,000 pounds of the golden fluid to be produced for a U.S. customer. Lindo acknowledges that this new scale of demand will require more efficient and economical supplies of beans, and so an additional plot of land has been acquired in Bernard Lodge.
“We want to hold onto the market we have,” Shirley says, “but we want to reap more of our own success.”