Palms up for gender equality: the women leading the way in Ghana’s palm oil sector

To be truly sustainable, the growing sector must first be inclusive.

Cecilia Asante (right) started a new poultry business as part of the Adum Banso smallholder oil palm project – two traditionally male-dominated industries.

Agnes Ntori and Rachael Amadah are something of a novelty in Ghana’s Western region. They have recently been elected to sit on Mpohor Wassa’s central Community Forest Protection Committee (CFPC): two of the three women who sit on the 14-member group.

It’s an important position to hold, as the committee monitor and report illegal logging and mining to protect the biodiversity-rich forests that surround their farming community.

But just as importantly, Agnes and Rachael are speaking up for women who have historically been sidelined in Ghana’s oil palm sector. They’ll play an essential part in growing the industry – and doing it sustainably.

Piloting a new paradigm

The Committee is part of a Partnerships for Forests supported community smallholder project: a partnership between Proforest and leading sustainable palm oil producer Benso Oil Palm Plantation (BOPP) with three nearby communities.

Farmers in Adum Dominase, Adum Trebuom, and Apeasem decided they could all benefit from pooling their land to develop a sustainable oil palm landscape. BOPP – the first RSPO-certified company in Ghana – has committed to buying the palm fruit bunches the smallholders produce, in exchange for zero-deforestation commitments. It’s good news for the nearby Nueng and Subri River forest reserves.

Powered by smallholders

In the Western Region – as is the case across the country – palm oil production is largely a smallholder affair; independent farmers cultivate around 93% of the land available for growing the trees, producing around 80% of the total harvest. But their productivity is low. Smallholders typically produce only half as many tonnes of palm fruit on the same land area as the large plantations, often less.

Global demand for the vegetable oil is growing, and with it, the pressure on depleting forests and protected areas; fertile forest land is where farmers with dwindling yields look to expand their plots.

With training on RSPO best practice, and access to higher yielding seeds, the project will support farmers to improve their harvests and increase productivity on existing land – removing the incentives for forest encroachment. This is backed by opportunities for other sources of income; Agnes has set up a bakery business as part of the project.

Oil palm productivity in Ghana.

A gendered sector

As a community-led initiative, the project’s success will rest on its inclusivity. For women like Agnes, it has already opened up opportunities in a sector that has traditionally been dominated by men.

“[In the decision-making bodies] everything is championed by men, so women tend to get ignored”

– Agnes Ntori

In the wider oil palm industry, the roles assumed by men are often more financially rewarding; it pays more to cultivate and maintain trees, or to make alcohol or baskets from the palms, versus the less lucrative work of picking loose fruits and processing the kernels into oil – widely seen as women’s work. Taking on the bulk of the responsibility of care in raising families, women often have less time available to spend on farms.

On top of that, women are limited by their access and control over land; small-scale oil palm farms are predominantly male-owned, but women make up the majority of the workforce. With ownership comes greater access to finance from banks and other lending agencies.

Earning extra from selling baked goods, Agnes has been able to send her grandchild to school.

Championing women

The project is working to challenge these economic imbalances and entrenched gender norms that are limiting women. The community palm field plot allocation process, for instance, has been careful to include specific gender criteria: a minimum of 40% will go to female farmers. Rather than having to rely on husbands to share collective earnings amongst the household, women will have direct control over what they earn from their land.

The project team also promotes greater female representation and participation in community decision-making. They’ve already run several sessions on gender issues, massively increasing awareness so that a gender perspective is mainstreamed throughout the landscape.

Stepping into the project’s committee role was not an idea either Rachael or Agnes had seriously entertained before. In the oil palm landscape decision-making processes “everything is championed by men, so women tend to get ignored,” says Agnes. And in the few previous meetings when women had been involved, they found it hard to speak up explains Helena Tetteh, Project Manager at Proforest – even when their concerns and challenges would have a significant impact on the project’s success.

Now, with encouragement from the project team, three women sit on the central forest protection committee, and Agnes – the committee’s treasurer – believes her visibility will inspire others to take up other leadership roles in the community.

Loverance also learned to make bread and pies at the community centre. She’s since set up her own bakery – a dream she’s had since childhood.

Shaking up stereotypes

The project’s impact is being felt beyond the palm oil sector. Learning financial management skills and how to use cooking equipment during training sessions in the local community centre, Agnes also went on to start up a baking business.

I am very proud and happy that I have been able to rock shoulders with the men”

Cecilia Asante

She and 39 other women have had the opportunity to learn new business skills to launch their own enterprises. Intended to offer an alternative income source while their palms grow, the support is giving women the confidence to step into traditionally male-dominated trades, like pig keeping and rabbit rearing.

Cecilia, who has just started a poultry business, welcomes the change. She explains: “I am very proud and happy that I have been able to rock shoulders with the men,” since women are very much the minority in the sector.

Each for equal

BOPP’s Estate Manager Kwasu Baah Ofori, is proud of the progress so far, but recognises that there is still a way to go. “Some of these things are cultural and you can’t change them within a year or two,” he says. But he’s optimistic for the future: “I believe as the project goes on, looking at the way we are doing the selection and allocation process and the trainings, I’m sure with time we will be able to make a lot of headway.”

Proforest and BOPP hope to share the lessons they learn from the pilot with other members of Ghana’s national platform within the Africa Palm Oil Initiative – a collaboration between ten countries working to develop acceptable principles for responsible oil palm development in Central and West Africa.

They hope their lead will promote wider uptake of gender-sensitive approaches across both private and public sector entities hoping to follow a similar path towards inclusive and sustainable oil palm development.

As elected member of the central CFPC, Rachael Amadah is keen to use her position to ensure women are championed and play key roles at all levels as Ghana’s oil palm sector grows – from national policy decisions, right down to the farm. It is essential, she says, “that women aren’t left behind”.