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 Sustainable Palm Oil in Africa : An Interview with RSPO’s Africa Head

Introduction:

Agric Journalist had an exclusive interview with Elikplim Agbitor, Head of Africa for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), who provided valuable insights into the organization’s efforts to promote sustainable palm oil production in Africa. we discussed the RSPO’s comprehensive standards, which cover economic viability, environmental acceptability, and social acceptability aspects.

Mr. Agbitor highlights the challenges faced by smallholders in achieving RSPO certification and the organization’s approach to supporting them through capacity building and yield improvement initiatives.

Furthermore, he addresses the potential impact of the EU’s deforestation regulation on the African palm oil industry.

Read the transcribed version of this interview

Kwesi Danquah: Thank you for joining us today. As you mentioned before this interview, RSPO has had three editions of the Africa Sustainable Palm Oil Conference in the past – in 2015, 2016, and 2019. Could you explain what these conferences were about and why the focus was tilted toward the upstream side of the palm oil supply chain over the years?

Elikplim Agbitor: Yes, the Africa Sustainable Palm Oil Conference brings together players across the entire palm oil sector in Africa, including the upstream which comprises plantations, smallholders, and mills, as well as the downstream which includes kernel crushers, refineries, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, and traders.

However, the conferences have leaned more heavily towards the upstream side because the key social and environmental challenges within the palm oil sector are concentrated upstream. Issues like land degradation, deforestation, soil and water pollution, air pollution, workers’ rights, fair compensation, and freedom of association are primarily upstream concerns.

Although we cover the entire supply chain, the focus has been skewed towards the upstream to address these crucial sustainability challenges. Of course, we also discuss aspects of standards that need clarification, our PalmTrace trading platform for certified sustainable palm oil, and other downstream supply chain matters.

 

Kwesi Danquah: I see. This time, you had an event specifically for the downstream supply chain in Cape Town. Could you explain the rationale behind this?

Elikplim Agbitor: Certainly. We decided to have an event tailored specifically for the downstream supply chain’s needs. 56% of our members in Africa are based in South Africa, which also has the highest number of RSPO-certified facilities and is the largest consumer of certified palm oil volumes in Africa. So it made sense to host this downstream-focused event in South Africa.

The key requirements for the downstream side revolve around having documented and verified procedures for handling certified palm oil products. There are different models like Identity Preserved, Segregated, and Mass Balance that dictate how certified and non-certified materials can be handled, stored, transported, and processed by refineries and manufacturers.

 

Kwesi Danquah: That’s helpful context. Shifting gears, what is your perspective on the palm oil industry in Africa, especially considering it is not a quality scheme like RSPO but a performance standard covering economic viability, environmental acceptability, and social acceptability?

Elikplim Agbitor: You’re absolutely right. RSPO standards are not about the quality of the palm oil produced but rather about how it is produced sustainably. Our standards ensure economic viability through requirements like having a sound business plan, operating legally, and maintaining transparency.

On the environmental front, we aim to prevent damage to the environment through measures against deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, improper chemical use, and conservation of biodiversity.

Socially, our standards cover workers’ rights like health and safety, freedom of association, decent wages, and transparent contracting, as well as ensuring local communities benefit and give their free, prior, and informed consent for activities that may impact them.

So, in summary, the RSPO scheme is a stringent system that checks for compliance with a comprehensive set of sustainability criteria through document reviews, stakeholder engagement, and on-site observations by independent third-party auditors and accreditation bodies.

 

Kwesi Danquah: I understand. Focusing on smallholders, who constitute around 70% of palm plantation areas in Africa, what are the challenges they face in achieving RSPO certification, and how is RSPO supporting them?

Elikplim Agbitor: Smallholders in Africa face significant technical and financial constraints in complying with RSPO requirements. Their immediate concern is improving their income and livelihoods, not necessarily certification.

Our approach starts with supporting best management practices to improve smallholder yields and incomes first. Once livelihoods are enhanced, we progress towards certification. RSPO has invested nearly $900,000 through our Smallholder Support Fund in Africa alone, supporting six smallholder projects across five countries focused on yield improvement and livelihood betterment.

We don’t expect smallholders to apply for funds individually. Instead, we work through partner organizations like NGOs and mills that work directly with smallholder groups. They apply for funding on behalf of the groups and provide capacity building, group formation, and strengthening support.

Our funding also covers the costs of forming and structuring new smallholder groups where they don’t already exist. We’ve set up about 10,000 certified independent smallholders in Africa so far through this approach, although there’s still a long way to go.

 

Kwesi Danquah: That’s very insightful. What would you say are the main barriers preventing more widespread adoption of RSPO certification among smallholders in Africa?

Elikplim Agbitor: A key barrier is the lack of organization among independent smallholders in most parts of Africa, apart from places like Côte d’Ivoire where it’s mandated by law for farmers to be part of cooperatives. In many other countries, smallholders operate individually, making it challenging to reach them.

Another barrier is the limited technical understanding and financial resources among smallholders to comply with our certification requirements directly. That’s why our approach focuses on first improving their yields and incomes through capacity building by partner organizations before progressing to certification.

We also struggle with receiving quality project proposals to access and disburse the available funds under the RSPO Smallholder Support Fund effectively. In the last funding window, we received seven proposals from Africa, but only one met the requirements.

So one of the main things all stakeholders, including the downstream supply chain members, need to do is support smallholder organization, capacity building, and eventual certification through shared responsibility commitments and corporate social responsibility initiatives. A little support can make a huge difference in smallholder livelihoods.

 

Kwesi Danquah: Those are valid points. Finally, what is your view on the potential impact of the EU’s deforestation regulation on the African palm oil industry, especially for smallholders?

Elikplim Agbitor: The RSPO standards largely align with most of the requirements in the EU deforestation regulation, and we’re working to incorporate any additional criteria in our ongoing standards revision.

However, a significant challenge is that Africa is a net importer of palm oil, consuming more than twice what we produce locally. A substantial portion of our consumption comes from imports, primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia, which may not be impacted directly by the EU regulation.

The regulation’s impact will be felt more acutely by the few mills in Africa that export palm oil to Europe. We’re already seeing some mills cease buying from smallholders to meet the EU’s requirements more easily, which is unfortunate as these smallholders cultivated their farms based on the promise of a market from these mills.

We need a phased approach and longer transition period to implement the EU regulation, with support for smallholders to meet the requirements rather than excluding them from supply chains. It’s a collective responsibility for all stakeholders, including downstream buyers in Europe, to support smallholder inclusion rather than exclusion.

 

Kwesi Danquah: Those are insightful perspectives. Thank you, Mr. Agbitor, for taking the time to share your knowledge and the work RSPO is doing to promote sustainable palm oil production, especially in supporting smallholders in Africa.

Elikplim Agbitor: Thank you for the engaging discussion. I’m happy to have provided clarity on RSPO’s approach and the challenges we face in the African context. Feel free to reach out if you need any further information or assistance related to sustainable palm oil.

Pictures taken at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) forum in Cape Town

 Sustainable Palm Oil in Africa : An Interview with RSPO's Africa Head   Sustainable Palm Oil in Africa : An Interview with RSPO's Africa Head  Sustainable Palm Oil in Africa : An Interview with RSPO's Africa Head     Sustainable Palm Oil in Africa : An Interview with RSPO's Africa Head

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