Skin-healthy nut sought by cosmetic companies breathes new life into impoverished economies of South America
Loggers in Colombia are stopping dead in their tracks and beginning to look out for special wild trees that produce the healthy and lucrative cacay nuts. These nuts, pronounced kahk-ai, are now lifting people out of poverty in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. What was once used as firewood is now being preserved for much finer uses. The cacay nuts contain a key ingredient that is now a hot commodity around the world.
The rush for cacay nuts began a couple of years ago when market researcher Alberto Jaramillo discovered that its protein-rich, yellow-colored oil could be used in high-end anti-aging creams in beauty shops around the world and sold for top dollar. Some beauty shops today sell the oil for nearly $200 an ounce. This is breathing new life into southern Colombia and spawning an entirely new industry. Farmers are now scrambling to preserve these trees, and they are even planting new ones as the demand for cacay grows.
Dairy farmer sells several cows to plant more lucrative cacay trees
One farmer named Vitaliano Ordonez recently sold eight of his cows to purchase 120 cacay-producing saplings. His dairy farm in Puerto Rico, Colombia, contains only two cacay-producing trees at the moment. He once gave the cacay nuts to his cows for food, but now he’s collecting every kernel for top-dollar export.
«I won’t let even one nut go to waste,» says 70-year-old dairy farmer Ordonez. The two trees are expected to produce more than 130 pounds of cacay kernels this year alone. This will provide Ordonez with a new stream of revenue estimated at 300,000 pesos or $198, which is equivalent to half the country’s monthly minimum wage.
Columbia’s cacay sales will ultimately go through Alberto Jaramillo, the man who initially researched the lucrative market for the oil. Jaramillo heads Kahai SAS from Bogota, which expects to double its sales of cacay this year. To make the most out of this new opportunity, Jaramillo sends workers into the rainforest on motorcycles and trucks. During peak harvest between February and April, a mature tree can put out 400 kilos worth of nuts, providing the harvester with up to 400,000 pesos per tree. This means harvesting the nuts from 18 mature trees can provide a single man with an entire year’s worth of minimum wage.
Two kilos of nuts can make about a liter of oil because the kernel is around 53 percent oil. This means that every mature tree is capable of providing 200 liters of precious oil. The abundance that is lifting people from poverty in the Amazon doesn’t begin and end with cacay oil alone. Jaramillo says that any leftover nuts are sold as edibles. He even has plans to make use of the leftover flour from the nut to make a protein-rich nutritional supplement.
An ounce of cacay oil can be sold for nearly $200 in high-end anti-aging products
When a cacay tree reaches 130 feet, it is typically cut down by the logging industry and sold as firewood. That’s all beginning to change as harvesters stop loggers dead in their tracks.
Sales of face care oils in the U.S. have more than doubled in the past two years. The personal care market has hit $465 billion. The most recent craze has been for argan oil-based skincare products, which are rich in antioxidants. The next craze could well be cacay oil, which is rich in antioxidants and retinols.
«It’s going to be the new little wave,» said Jamie Sherrill. «I was always a fan of retinol and argan oil, and we were initially searching for ways to improve on these two ingredients.»
In Santa Monica, Sherrill sells a tiny one-ounce facial elixir containing cacay oil for $198. A three-item set of anti-aging products goes for $1,555 at Harrods department store. These prices will eventually go down as more Colombian farmers plant and harvest the cacay nut.
«It’s more expensive than a lot of your regular oils,» said Judi Beerling, a research manager at the London-based consulting firm Organic Monitor. «As more becomes available, obviously the prices will become less of an issue.»