Smallholder development as the best route for palm oil in Africa?

The role of smallholders featured heavily in last month’s Guardian expert panel discussion on oil palm development in Africa. Abraham Baffoe, Africa Regional Director for SHARP partner Proforest, was on the panel, which was supported by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. Amongst the panel members and the audience, who were invited to contribute questions, there was a strong interest in ensuring local communities and smallholders benefit from the industry. And many agreed with Abraham’s concluding statement that the preferable form of palm oil development for Africa would be through smallholder production.

Abraham was joined on the panel by  Rachel Barré from L’Oréal, Tom Lomax of the Forest Peoples Programme and Christopher Stewart of Olam International. Tony Hill, director of the SHARP partnership attended as a seminar delegate, along with representatives from a range of private sector and civil society organisations. The immediate agenda for the debate was framed by the reference in the title to ‘avoiding mistakes of the past’. This reflected a common concern that the social, economic and environmental impact of the industry in other parts of the world are not always positive. Speakers agreed that the tree and its crop are not inherently good or bad, and the potential economic benefits for a continent that imports millions of tonnes of palm oil every year were readily highlighted. However, the agri-industrial model used by many palm oil producers in Southeast Asia was criticized by many at the event. There was general agreement that a different model is needed for Africa, one that respects traditional land tenure arrangements, avoids conflict with and within local populations and engages national governments to direct the industry on a pathway to sustainability.

Speakers highlighted the value in giving smallholders an opportunity to control their own economic development. There were also arguments for more diversified landscapes with a mosaic of land use, which could be enabled by smallholder development. Panelists agreed that diverse geographical and cultural contexts across Africa must be taken into account and recognized the need for investment and technical assistance for small farmers – support which could come from a combination of the private sector, public-private partnerships and civil society organizations.

Unfortunately, the debate did not address the apparent incoherence between the good intentions of campaigning NGOs and Consumer Goods Forum companies – seeking full RSPO certification, traceability and assurance on ‘No-Deforestation’ in their supply chains by 2020 - versus their wish to see thriving smallholder livelihoods in Africa. This is a factor prompting many companies to bypass the smaller producers in the complex landscapes of Africa and elsewhere and instead and source from big industrial producers in Southeast Asia.

From the experience of the SHARP partnership there are two key steps needed to address this gap between good intentions and reality:

  • Palm oil production companies need to adapt their business models to lower the barriers for smallholders to enter the palm oil business. This will help to drive positive socio-economic outcomes in Africa.
  • Campaigning NGOs (more particularly those with a social agenda) need to take a more global view on ‘sustainability’ in palm oil that incorporates socio-economic sustainability for rural economies in Africa.