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Postcards from the field: The journey from oil palm plantation to oleochemical plant in Riau


Six months after joining Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food, I had the chance to visit the company’s oil palm plantation in Libo, Riau as part of an official media tour to launch the company’s new joint venture oleochemical plant in Dumai. Located near the SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI), the tour was guided by JP Caliman, Director of SMARTRI. A total of 36 participants from national and international media learnt how the palm oil industry works from upstream to downstream –  producing oleochemical products from palm oil derivatives.

Participants gathered in front of a plantation mess in Libo, Riau.

Exquisite owls as natural pest controls
As the sun hit our skin, the media group and I walked toward the owl breeding area. These birds with the most sensitive sense of hearing play extremely important roles in protecting the oil palm plantation. They prey on mice that make nests and eat fresh fruit bunches. The silky white and brown furred owls are taken care of by the owl keeper’s loving hands.

The tour guide explained the essential role of owls in an oil palm plantation.
Tyto Alba (Serak Jawa), the silky white and brown furred owl sized 30 cm.

Tasting fresh fruit bunches straight from the plantation
We then continued the journey to the oil palm plantation. As I looked out the window, there was only a green and extensive overlay expanse of oil palm plantations as far as my eye could see.  The thing that crossed my mind at that moment was how blessed with natural resources Indonesia is. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer, and this commodity contributes greatly to developing our economy.

When we finally arrived at the plantation, my eyes caught a glimpse of brownish piles of objects resembling hair wigs from a distance. My curiosity brought me closer to them. “We reuse these empty fruit bunches to make compost,” said JP Caliman while pointing to the piles of empty fruit bunches.

JP Caliman (far right) explained how empty fruit bunches could be converted into compost.

We observed how oil palm fresh fruit bunches were harvested. I whipped my smart phone out to record the process and was mesmerized by the ability of the harvester who took out fresh fruit bunches from trees that were 25 meters high. In less than 30 seconds, the big fresh fruit bunches weighing approximately 25 kilograms fell down to the ground and the crowd instinctively shouted, “Wow!” After seeing the harvest process, the truck driver demonstrated the process of transporting fresh fruit bunches.

The skilful harvester getting fruits from high up the tree.
Transporting fresh fruit bunches quickly.

Afterwards I went to the group of participants standing around a batch of fresh fruit bunches that had just been harvested. Although oil palm is the country’s largest contributor to foreign exchange up to USD 18 million, many of us have never seen or tasted the oil palm fruit. Some of the participants looked like they were having fun trying it out, while others had strange expressions. I was also interested in tasting it straight from the plantation. Uniquely, the fruit tasted sweet like sapodilla and savoury like margarine. The texture of the flesh was just like margarine and left a yellowish trace on my fingers. One remark I remembered the most from Frans Costan, CEO of Sinar Mas Plantation for Riau Region, who said jokingly while also eating the fruit, “We must thank the seeds because they are the reason we get paid.”

The fresh fruit bunch is dark reddish with a unique flavour.

The oleochemical plant in Indonesia
The following day we visited the Sinar Mas Cepsa oleochemical plant in Dumai. The plant represents an investment of EUR 300 million (IDR 4.77 trillion) and produces fatty alcohol from sustainable palm kernel oil for household cleaning and personal care products. A Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food refinery is located next door, allowing for the raw material to be piped directly to the oleochemical plant, expediting the production of oleochemicals. We also got a chance to meet those working behind the scenes, operating machinery and monitoring production screens.

Walking the premises of the new Sinar Mas Cepsa oleochemical plant in Dumai.

This trip certainly enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the industry I work in. Having spoken to people on the ground and visited the sites, I’ve found that farming takes dedication and love to work the land and care for the plants. It all begins from research and development of the oil palm planting materials to finally producing the best derivative products. This trip also opened my eyes to how my life is filled with everyday products that are made from palm-oil based oleochemicals.

See you on the next trip!

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