New Frontiers of Palm Oil: Tackling the Multi-Dimensional Dynamics of Palm Oil Expansion in West Africa

During the past 25 years, global production of oils and fats increased by over 150% and palm oil accounted for most of the increase, ~30% of world production (USDA, 2016). Palm oil is an important commodity that is found in a variety of products from foods to cosmetics. However, it is driving the sustainability debate as it causes deforestation, creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, drives social conflicts and leads to the loss of vital habitats and unique biodiversity. Industry actors have formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to address the steps towards sustainability. However, the knowledge base to assess and develop best practices for achieving sustainability is still incomplete. It is imperative to develop an evidence-based approach for testing the effectiveness of certification, to provide baseline information, and to advance the development of sustainable practices. Moreover, current academic research is predominantly focused on South-East Asia.

West Africa, in particular Ghana, the indigenous home of the palm oil plant, is currently at the frontier of global palm oil expansion. Unlike South-East Asia where large-scale mono-cultural plantations have been the norm, West African production is mostly undertaken by small farmers and as a subsistence activity. Many African governments, and the Ghanaian government in particular, have recently positioned palm oil as a new key source of revenue, exports and development in the region. Moreover, as dry seasons become more pronounced in Ghana with climate change, conditions for growing oil palm may overtake those of cocoa. The demands of these rapidly changing geographies of production have met many social, political, ecological and supply chain management challenges on the ground, such as complex land tenure systems, the rolling out of ‘best practice’, yield productivity, environmental sustainability issues, lack of access to fertiliser, inefficient waste management, labour issues, gendered divisions in production processes, processing bottlenecks, displacement, and the impact of an array of new private regulations, actors, standards and certification schemes. Little is known about many of these processes in Ghana. Little is also known about different stakeholders perspectives e.g. farmers/processors attitudes to production at the upstream end of the supply chain, or retailers/consumers attitudes at the downstream.

This proposal aims to understand the different life cycle dynamics and external pressures of palm oil production, with a specific focus on the challenges of the new frontiers of smallholder production rolling out across West Africa.

Lead Academic
Sonal Choudhary – University of Sheffield

Lead Academics at other two Universities
Keith Hamer – University of Leeds
Jane Hill – University of York

Other members of staff associated with this project
Liam Goucher – University of Sheffield
Merisa Thompson – University of Sheffield
Lenny Koh – University of Sheffield
Bob Doherty – University of York
Sarah Scriven – University of York
Steve Banwart – University of Leeds
Felicity Edwards – University of Leeds