From the sun-drenched beaches, to deep inside the tropical palm forests of West Africa, the region most famous for being the origin of Voodooism has one requisite for a party; the locally distilled liquor is the obligatory libation of the village social scene. Ranging from the most mysterious and extravagant ceremonies, to light-hearted meals among friends, it gets the conversation and the laughter flowing like nothing else.
They call it Sodabe. The liquor is proudly crafted by local farmers from the smooth and slightly sugary sap of palm trees which is fermented and then distilled. It can be sipped, mixed, or shot, and goes especially well with tropical fruit juices. Subtle hints of sugary sap create a distinct flavor that is thus far non-existent in the US, although it’s quite a popular flavor in other tropical regions of the world.
We’d like to share this liquor with the adventurous and fun-loving American crowd, but need to make it safe to drink first. Our goal is to provide a profitable outlet for these local farmers by revamping the distilling methods and scaling up the quality of sodabe production so that it is a safe and quality product for Beninese and Americans alike. In doing so, we'd be creating real and sustainable growth for Benin's struggling economy.
- Learn about the current process and its challenges - why it's difficult to make safe sodabe
- Learn about our approach to help - how we're going to reduce the environmental impact and foster sustainable growth in local economies
- For those who want a more detailed look, we've put together info on our risks & challenges
Help us today with a donation - your support will help improve the health of Beninese, as well as reduce deforestation, and we are offering a few perks for different levels of support.
Sodabe in local packaging. The bottle on the left is decorated for a Voodoo ceremony, whereas the one on the right is stored in an old watter bottle. Both have added plants for flavor.
Benin is a small Francophone country on the coast of West Africa, situated to the west of Nigeria, the east of Togo, and to the south of Burkina Faso and Niger. It is also known as the Slave Coast because of its major role as in the exportation of slaves from the 16th to 19th centuries. The country is considered one of the poorest in the world.
Benin is also credited as being the birthplace of the West African Voodoo religion (also spelled Vodun, Vudoun, etc), an animist practice that believes in harnessing the mystical power of the plants and animals of the earth in order to maintain balance and order in life. This cultural element was so engrained in the culture of deported slaves that derivations of Voodoo are still present in former slave trading hubs including Haiti, Louisiana, and Brazil. Currently in Benin, 17.3 percent of the population follow the Voodoo religion while the majority of Beninese still follow its cultural influences. For example, it is considered bad luck to whistle or discard used cooking oil while the sun is down.
Currently, farmers locate an Oil Palm Tree and then cut it down. A hole is carved into the trunk to release sap into a collection container over a period of about 30 days. It begins to ferment immediately due to the natural yeasts present and after several days it is then referred to as palm wine.
The palm wine is then distilled using stills (equipment used for distillation) which are currently very crude, homemade setups that require pools of standing water which attract mosquitoes (which spread the Malaria parasite) and could contain hard metals of which trace amounts would end up in the sodabe.
A current setup for making sodabe. The barrel in the background is filled with the palm wine and heated with a fire. As the alcohol evaporates, it is cooled by the tanks of water, which culture many harmful organisims.
The temperature cannot be adequately monitored nor controlled leading to inconsistent batches and an increased possibility of overheating and burning the mash (the liquid to be distilled), introducing unpleasant flavors and other unwanted substances (i.e. higher order, harmful alcohols) in the evaporate. Furthermore, current producers rarely discard the harmful methanol which is always present in the very beginning of any distillation run, which in small quantities causes hangovers, and in larger quantities more harmful health effects. For these reasons, quality sodabe is elusive, and many people who don't understand these risks continue to drink it to the detriment of their health.
Aside from these health risks, their current process requires cutting down the tree which leads to deforestation.
We have networked with local farmers for a consistent source of palm sap. It will be transported from local villages to our facility located in Cotonou to continue the fermentation process. After the transformation, the palm wine mash will be monitored and tested for sufficient sugar and alcohol quantities before being transferred to the still for distillation. Monitoring will continue during distillation to produce safe and quality batches. The sodabe will then be passed along to a current local bottling company with a well-established and sanitary bottling process for sale in Benin, or shipped in bulk to the US for bottling and distribution there.
In parallel, we will be working towards educating farmers on tapping palms in a more sustainable manner. Farmers in Indonesia and neighboring Nigeria have such a method that does not require the tree to be cut down, and will also increase the amount of sap collected each month by up to 7x per tree. This will enable farmers to preserve the palm forests and increase their profits by increasing product yields.
Our Current Status
Our project is currently underway, as we are perched ready and waiting here in Cotonou to get started. With the new arrival of a US-manufactured stainless steel still, we are easily able to monitor the temperature and alcohol content during the process. We have also networked with farmers, producers, and sellers who are excited about our project. But we need your help. Current farmers are hesitant to try new methods of harvesting palm sap due to the risk of losing the harvest. An initial investment of tapping equipment and supplies is needed to educate these farmers and the local communities, which will enable us to demonstrate first-hand these new and more efficient methods. We also need to invest in clean bottles and transportation of the product throughout the country. Any further donations above our goal will be a huge asset in being able to sell sodabe in additional cities in the US (and eventually the rest of the world), creating local jobs in Benin as our production increases.
We would be able to:
-source with more local farmers!
-become certified as Fair Trade!
-expand with different flavor infusions from local exotic fruits!
We will do our best to get you your perks before Christmas but priority will go to those who pledge first, so get your pledges in early. Also, international shipping will likely take longer than domestic. Please note that there will need to be an additional charge to ship internationally (outside of the US and Benin). Bracelet rewards require a $5 shipping charge, $7 for the Necklace and the Care Package, $10 for the Painting, $15 for the Clothing, $50 for the Mask, $100 for the Bronze Head, and $150 for the Leopard. If you forget, we will contact you before shipping to finalize those details.
We are completely dedicated to this project and are willing to discuss additional customized perks for our highest contributors. Message us for details or with any suggestions.
Check out these pictures below showing our perks. They all come from and directly benefit the local people of Benin who are effected by this project:
Fulani Bracelets in blue, yellow, green, white, and purple.
A display of a Beaded Necklace Perk. Each is unique, and thus we cannot guarantee an exact match.
Some examples of traditional West African clothing for the Custom Tailored African Clothing Perk, as well as a local vendor with a variety of fabrics.
A display of some of the African Masks Perk. Each is unique, and thus we cannot guarantee an exact match.
A display of some of the African Paintings Perk. Each is unique, and thus we cannot guarantee an exact match.
A display of some of the Bronze Head Statues Perk. Each is unique, and thus we cannot guarantee an exact match.
A display of a Bronze Leopard Perk. Each is unique, and thus we cannot guarantee an exact match. These statues stand at about knee height.
Risks & Challenges:
Working in Benin:
Future political instability could arise, although ever since their first democratic election in 1991, all elections have been peaceful, and Benin has been regarded as being quite stable and a model of democracy in West Africa. Additionally, preliminary consultations with the Economic Officer at the American Embassy in Cotonou have reassured us of the business climate in Benin.
Since the quality of current sodabe is extremely varied and unreliable, we will be manufacturing the sodabe ourselves using western distilling equipment for a consistent and safe product. With our current still, we are easily able to monitor the temperature and alcohol content during the process. To verify the chemical make-up of the sodabe, we will discuss partnerships with the local university for use of their gas chromatography equipment which will match our recipe with current research on safe sodabe production done by Professor Osseyi at the University of Lome, Dept of Agro-Forestry. Furthermore, detailed records will be kept on each batch to monitor any differences between palm forests. In addition, one of the project members, Jake Muhleman, is an MIT trained mechanical engineer which will be valuable to help troubleshoot any problems that arise.
Difficulties getting clearance to sell in the US
Our team has experience and contacts in gaining authorization to import alcoholic beverages into the United States. Furthermore, we will be partnering with importers and distributors, who offer services for navigating this process, which will help to reduce this risk. All bottles sold in the US will be bottled in the US, which will help reduce red tape since the bottling company will already have an approved bottling process.
We have networked with a manager at the Port Authority in Cotonou to ensure that things go smoothly. Upon completing the incorporation process to operate in Benin, we will be able to legally export products without any forseeable issues. Larger potential issues relate to delays in processing shipments, although we have been able to interface with other American companies operating in Benin who currently export to New York on a monthly basis without issue.