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by Datuk Darrel Webber
Long before palm oil flourished in the humid tropics of Malaysia and Indonesia, West Africa was home to the crop. Palm oil provided a vital food source for local communities and was one of the region’s earliest traded commodities. Today, palm oil in Africa accounts for around 70 per cent of edible oil consumption and it’s estimated that up to 22 million hectares of land in West and Central Africa could be converted to oil palm plantations by 2021. The growth and potential for Africa’s sustainable palm oil industry is enduring but like many developing markets, it’s not without its challenges.
African excursion illuminates challenges and opportunities
My recent trip to Africa - visiting Liberia, Ghana, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire - helped me gain perspective of what’s working well across the continent, and what’s not. It also helped me realise that while it’s natural to want to propose solutions, we need to work with our partners in these regions to keep collaborations as inclusive as possible with multi-stakeholder representation that considers all levels of the supply chain and affected communities. The reason for this is simple - you can’t impose global solutions to local contexts.
Where I believe the RSPO can and should play a vital role, is in making sure the debate on sustainable palm oil in Africa is well-informed. Collaboration is key and the focus must be on strengthening the dialogue between consuming and producing countries and helping to nurture a work environment where solutions to local problems are created by local stakeholders to address the global mission of making sustainable palm oil the norm.
RSPO-Africa representative provides valuable input
I expect that the role of the RSPO in Africa should be both clearer and more defined with the addition of Elikplim Dziwornu Agbitor (or Eli, as we know him), our RSPO-Africa representative. Having Eli on board enables the RSPO to use valuable and locally-informed insights of the unique circumstances Africa presents to shape and improve our work. The RSPO recognises that it is essential that we understand the context of how the industry operates in Africa and that the RSPO Principles and Criteria will be better informed because of greater input from this region.
Forest conservation vs development: who decides?
When speaking to Eli and local stakeholders about the African challenges and opportunities, they explained that these can differ from country to country within the continent; that one of the key challenges with palm oil production stems from the ethical debate of development versus conservation. Countries such as Liberia, Gabon and Congo have extensive forest cover (as high as 86 per cent in Gabon) and also happen to be new frontiers for large-scale oil palm plantation expansion. The question is whether these countries should be able to convert any forest at all, and who is to make that decision?
Untapping the potential of smallholders is key to success
Land rights, Free Prior Informed Consent, and smallholder inclusion are important factors to consider in Africa’s sustainability debate. This is because much of the Fresh Fruit Bunch and Crude Palm Oil production is controlled by smallholders, yet their inclusion in the sustainable palm oil supply chain leaves much to be desired. As with most smallholders in producing countries, African smallholder farmers are facing issues such as low yields; resulting from over-aged trees and a general lack of Best Management Practices.
Challenges lead to opportunity
Despite these challenges, I am not discouraged. Solutions come from understanding the complexity of local context and the discussion on sustainable palm oil in Africa needs to be fact-based and robust. I was tempted to try my hand at providing solutions to solve the many trying issues in Africa and when I looked closely – I saw that there is so much to hope for! As with many other countries in emerging markets, the nations of Africa are still developing both socially and economically and there is much potential to be realised. Sure, we can help by providing the necessary tools to create a thriving sustainable palm oil industry, but we need to allow the people of this region the time to build the human capacity to handle these tools efficiently.