Cultivating Sustainability: RSPO’s Support to African Smallholder Palm Oil Farmers

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In Africa’s vast and diverse landscapes, the palm oil industry has long been a vital economic engine, providing livelihoods for millions of smallholder palm oil farmers. However, the path to sustainability has been fraught with challenges, from environmental concerns to social inequities. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization at the forefront of a global movement to transform the industry from within.

In a recent interview, Elikplim Agbitor, the Head of Africa at RSPO, shed light on the organization’s multifaceted approach to supporting smallholder palm oil farmers across the continent. “Our standards are not about the quality of the palm oil produced,” Mr. Agbitor explained, “but rather about how it is produced sustainably.”

RSPO's Initiatives to African Smallholder Palm Oil Farmers

At the heart of RSPO’s mission lies a tripartite focus on economic viability, environmental acceptability, and social acceptability. Through stringent requirements and independent third-party audits, the organization aims to ensure that palm oil production adheres to a comprehensive set of sustainability criteria, from legal compliance and transparent business practices to preventing deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution, as well as safeguarding workers’ rights and community interests.

The Smallholder Challenge

Mr. Agbitor acknowledged the lack of organization among independent smallholders in most parts of Africa, apart from places like Côte d’Ivoire, where farmers are mandated by law to be part of cooperatives. “In many other countries, smallholders operate individually, making it challenging to reach them,” he says.

Another unique challenge faced by smallholder palm oil farmers, who constitute a staggering 70% of palm plantation areas in Africa. “Smallholders in Africa face significant technical and financial constraints in complying with RSPO requirements,” he said. “Their immediate concern is improving their income and livelihoods, not necessarily certification.”

Recognizing this reality, RSPO has adopted a pragmatic approach, starting with supporting best management practices to improve smallholder yields and incomes first. “Once livelihoods are enhanced, we then progress towards certification,” Mr. Agbitor explained.

RSPO Smallholder Support Fund

As a result, RSPO has invested nearly $900,000 through its Smallholder Support Fund in Africa alone, supporting six smallholder projects across five countries. The focus is on yield and livelihood improvement.

“We don’t expect smallholders to apply for funds individually,” Mr. Agbitor clarified. Instead, RSPO works through partner organizations like NGOs and mills that work directly with smallholder groups. These partners apply for funding on behalf of the groups and provide capacity-building, group formation, and strengthening support.

Over the years, RSPO has struggled with receiving quality project proposals to access and disburse the available funds under the Smallholder Support Fund effectively. “In the last funding window, we received seven proposals from Africa, but only one met the requirements,” Mr. Agbitor revealed.

A Shared Responsibility: Forging Collaborative Partnerships

As RSPO navigates these challenges, it recognizes the need for shared responsibility among all stakeholders, including the downstream supply chain members. Mr. Agbitor emphasizes the importance of supporting smallholder organization, capacity building, and eventual certification through shared responsibility commitments and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

In the face of adversity, RSPO remains resolute, steadfast in its commitment to uplifting smallholder livelihoods while promoting environmental and social responsibility in the African palm oil industry. By fostering collaborative partnerships, investing in grassroots initiatives, and prioritizing the well-being of those who toil in the fields, RSPO is paving the way for a more equitable and sustainable future—one harvest at a time.

Also read: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to Host Supply Chain Forum in Africa

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