Gender dynamics in Ghana’s oil palm processing sector

Taking a gendered approach to sustainability assessments
A “kramer” or artisanal oil palm mill in Ghana’s Eastern region. CIFOR/Ahtziri Gonzalez

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Known throughout the industry as “oil palm mamas” or “market queens,” women play a competitive role 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.”

Meeting the demand for oil palm

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.

Over the past few decades, the formal sector has played a particularly important role in industry expansion by providing planting materials, fertilizers, harvesting tools and safety equipment to oil palm farmers in exchange for exclusive contracts. Yet, despite the high rate of production and consumption these activities encouraged, the nation is still unable to meet its demand for palm oil.

Informal artisanal processing mills operated by “oil palm mamas” have boomed in recent years to fill these gaps. Such livelihoods are particularly available to women, as processing is locally perceived as a female “kitchen activity.” A typical informal mill hires about 22 mostly women laborers, but some men also work in the mills when other traditionally male work is unavailable.

In spite of its recent growth, the informal sector is plagued by persistent problems including low oil extraction rates, poor working conditions and negative environmental impacts linked to carbon emissions, air and water pollution. The toxic smoke released during processing is a health hazard for employees, and effluent from the mills often runs into the nearby waterways.

Additionally, gender gaps that disproportionately affect women also exist within the informal sector. For example, 80 percent of informal mills are owned by men, even though the operators and majority of laborers are women; this creates a barrier to equal benefit sharing between the genders.

Competition between the formal and informal processing sectors

Although large-scale formal mills are more tightly regulated to produce oil palm safely, sustainably and efficiently, the current business model is threatened by competition with smallholders for the same resources. Ballooning demand for oil palm means that informal mills can entice farmers to break their contracts with companies by offering flexible cash payments for palm nuts from which the oil is extracted, no strings attached.

The competition has encouraged farmers to side sell their palm nuts to the informal sector without repaying their debts to the companies with which they were originally contracted. These conditions have made it difficult for formal processing mills to compete in grocery stores where the prices for palm oil are tied to global market value, not local demand. As a result, many companies have closed their service and benefit schemes with farmers to stay economically competitive.

“Farmers now have to pay full price or privately for the same services that they used to receive from processing companies for free,” said Gallagher. “Some high-tech farmers are able to do this, but low-tech farmers are simply not maintaining their crops to the same standard and will see reduced yields over time.”

Sustainability has an economic, environmental and social component, she added, explaining that while companies and large-scale operators are held to higher environmental sustainability standards, they must make very deliberate decisions within their business models to ensure the inclusion of women who have traditionally dominated the processing nodes.

At first glance, it may seem like a good idea for policymakers to favor commercial processors and enforce better standards on smallholder processors. However, doing so could lead to job losses for many women and men in the informal sector. “Formality, efficiency and sustainability of the [oil palm] industry is weighed against employment opportunities, women’s autonomy and rural development,” said joint author Markus Ihalainen, a former CIFOR senior research officer who was part of the core project team, during the 2020 FTA Science Conference.

Prior CIFOR research on the oil palm sector has also shown that industry formalization could disproportionately disempower women. While men can usually find decent jobs in the formal sector, women are more likely relegated to temporary work and lower-paying positions. Additionally, women often do not receive formal education and training, which makes them less competitive in a formalized industry with rapidly evolving technologies.

Solutions that fairly benefit “queens” and “kings”

The CIFOR-ICRAF manual addresses ways to sustainably upscale both the formal and informal sectors by looking at six case studies from the Kwaebibirem district. Three of the sample cases were taken from the formal sector and three from the informal sector.

Using a combination of sex-disaggregated surveys, semi-structured interviews and stakeholder forums, the work identifies how different business models affect oil palm “queens” and “kings” using gendered indicators. The goal is to create a visual representation of the “footprint” that decisions about the oil palm sector will leave on society and the environment, which can be used as reference.

“We must address issues of fair competition, contract loyalty and basic environmental and occupational health standards while finding ways to support a vibrant palm oil economy that works for producers and processors of different genders,” said Gallagher.

For example, the scientists found that there are ways for the formal sector to accommodate some of the social structures and flexible work arrangements that make artisanal processing mills appealing to female workers. Both formal and informal industries can also choose to strategically upgrade to new technologies so that the industry can continue to provide opportunities for both skilled and unskilled laborers.

The results of this study will feed into a complementary Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) project in the region by exploring ways to enhance synergies and reconcile trade-offs between the formal and informal oil palm sectors through their Oil Palm Working Group.

Furthermore, the research presented in the manual informs the development of gender-responsive oil palm sustainability standards through CIFOR-ICRAF’s ongoing engagement with certification bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Tree Crops Development Authority (TDCA). Bringing together various stakeholders and interest groups is important to build standards that are equitable for women and men of different ethnicities, classes and generations, according to the researchers. In this way, ‘oil palm mamas’ and ‘market queens and kings’ can continue to play important, fairly-compensated roles in Ghana’s oil palm sector and beyond.

For more information on this topic, please contact Emily Gallagher at
This research was supported by This work was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
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