TBY talks to Jens Mesa-Dishington, Executive President of Fedepalma, on new technological developments, the company's role in regional development, and Colombia as an energy exporter.

Jens Mesa-Dishington
Jens Mesa-Dishington is the Executive President of the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers in Colombia, Fedepalma. His professional life has been dedicated to agroindustrial development in different organizations. Before his work at Fedepalma, he was an Economic Advisor to the National Federation of Coffee Growers and Submanager at Agropecuarias Monterrey, both in Colombia. He has been at Fedapalma for 20 years. He studied Economics at Universidad Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, and he received his Master’s Degree in Economics from Cornell University, with a concentration in Production Economics, Marketing, and Finance.

What technological advances have you implemented to improve productivity?

In Colombia and Latin America, we find many pests and diseases. Therefore, we need to conduct specialized research on our needs here in this region. We have been developing some new tools and knowledge to understand the behavior of these diseases and find out what the causes are so we can have crops that are not affected by this problem. In Colombia, we have developed a new palm that is a hybrid between the American Palm and the African Palm. From this new hybrid we can obtain a new oil that we call “high oleic palm oil," which is different from the regular oil in food and non-food industrial applications. We have reached 50,000-planted hectares of this species of oil palm.

What is Colombia's annual production of palm oil?

In spring of 2013, we will be going above the 1 million-ton mark per year. This is going to be the first time the country will reach this number, so it is a great achievement for the sector.

What is Fedepalma's role in regional economic development?

Since land is a big issue for many different reasons, for example the social impact on rural workers, smallholders, and medium-sized producers, we have been developing a model where an entrepreneur has a piece of land and an extraction mill. This larger company then helps smallholders by putting them together in what we call “strategic alliances" to produce palm oil. Through this model, we have been able to significantly increase the amount of fruit being produced without direct investments from entrepreneurs. They do it indirectly through these producers and this also helps enhance social relationships in the region because everybody feels part of the business, and not like a big company came in and bought everything. We try to make everyone participate. We call this “inclusive business." At the moment, we have about 80,000 hectares under this type of model out of the 450,000 hectares that we have in the country. There are over 100 of these smallholding alliances, and through these we improve our social impact and social perception in the communities. They are also supporting the development of the oil palm industry in Colombia. Instead of having large plantations owned by only one company, this is a way to have a larger, nuclear estate not belonging to only one company. It involves small- and medium- sized producers. In the late 1990s, 70% of the fruit that we processed in the mills was from owned plantations and 30% from other suppliers. Today, it is the opposite.

What percentage of the palm oil goes into the food industry, and what percentage goes into the bio-fuel sector?

Today, with the development of the palm biodiesel program in Colombia, we have about 50% of local sales going to bio-diesel and 50% to the food industry. We sell to the local market about 85% out of total production and export 15%. Europe has been our major export market for almost 20 years. Also, some Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Chile, have been important to us. Now, the US is demanding more palm oil for the food industry and hopefully soon for biodiesel as well.

What is Colombia's potential to become an exporter of energy in the short to medium term?

The oil palm is a miraculous plant. It transforms solar energy in a very efficient way into energy in the form of oil. It is very productive when compared to other oilseeds. It is 10 times more productive than soy beans, for example. For many years, we were only looking at the food industry and the soap and detergent industries. Now, we are looking more into many different oleochemical areas. We have six biodiesel plants in the country producing close to 500,000 tons a year. Now, I see many companies looking for fresh opportunities to manufacture feedstock for the detergent industry and other industries.