How “oil palm mamas” are making profits from oil palm processing

By Nneka Nwogwugwu

Women farmers known as “oil palm mamas” or “market queens,” play competitive roles in Ghana’s informal oil palm sector.

The terms refer respectively to their high-profile operation of processing mills and sale and export of products, particularly in the smallholder sector which produces 76 percent of the nation’s crude palm oil (CPO).

However, until recently, little has been known about gender dynamics surrounding oil palm processing, as most research literature has focused on the production side of the value chain, which is dominated by men.

Now, a new manual from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) is innovating on a gendered approach, which involves sex-disaggregated surveys, semi-structured interviews and stakeholder forums, to measure the social footprint of informal and formal market value chains for oil palm in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

The research, which was conducted by scientists with the CGIAR Research Programs on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), Policies Institutions and Marketplaces (PIM) and partners — aims to identify opportunities and challenges for realizing sustainable and gender equitable value chain participation across different types of palm oil processing mills. The findings will help palm oil enterprises and other stakeholders in formal and informal sectors to improve their production systems without disproportionately disadvantaging women workers.

“What we want to demonstrate with this social footprint analysis is that both formal and informal oil palm processors serve functional niches in this highly gendered economy,” said Emily Gallagher, a scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF who specializes in integrated rural development, defining “highly gendered” as an economy structured by gender norms in which women and men each have specific roles with little crossover or transgression of those norms.

“The methodology proposed in the manual allows us to share our findings visually with palm oil enterprises so that they can take actionable steps to upgrade processing conditions and improve employee satisfaction without sacrificing labor opportunities for women and men.”

Oil palm is the second most important industry for rural job creation in Ghana after cocoa, employing about 2 million people, according to a national report.

The formal processing sector is responsible for domestic commercial production, what is sold in grocery stores, while the informal sector produces the red, unrefined palm oil that is sold in local markets.’

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