A woman processing palm
A woman processing palm

Unlocking economic power of female artisanal palm oil processors

When it comes to developing Ghana's palm oil sector, the government has focused primarily on promoting large industrial mills and expanding cultivation by smallholder farmers. 

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While increasing productivity and yields is important, this narrow approach overlooks a vital segment of the sector ‒ the thousands of Ghanaian women working in informal, small-scale artisanal palm oil processing.

From 2017-2019, I conducted a research study into the economic impacts of women's engagement in the artisanal palm oil industry in the Ejisu-Juaben Municipality in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, surveying a diverse group of mill operators, farmers, and cooperative groups.

The main results from this study are still relevant today and consistently highlight the crucial role these female processors play in rural economies and poverty alleviation. Despite lacking access to land for cultivation, women have carved out entrepreneurial opportunities to process palm oil using semi-mechanised mills.

One-third of women in Juaben are employed in this venture. Ninety per cent of these women started this business because they had no job option and all of them needed no formal training to get started.

Significant

Their contributions are significant. Artisanal milling provides employment, both for the women processors themselves and the labourers and ancillary businesses they rely on. The women form symbiotic relationships with smallholder farmers, providing trade financing, harvesting assistance and a guaranteed market for their crops.

Since most farmers do not have bank accounts, the women involved in artisanal processing maintain business relationships with micro-lenders and buyers to push loans to farmers upstream of the supply chain.

Fifty per cent of processors stated they requested loans from customers to lend to farmers providing an essential role of trade financing based on trust and relationships where large mills fall short.

Market

Furthermore, artisanal palm oil processing creates a local market that is vital to the economic fabric of farming communities. Their products help meet soaring regional demand for unrefined red palm oil, a dietary staple and a key ingredient in household and industrial products.

Fifty per cent of respondents say they have existing relationships and contracts with specific traders which include large institutional buyers who supply to the Government School Feeding Programmes, while others rely on market traders.

There is a weekly influx of large palm oil merchants on every market day from neighbouring West African countries. This market activation has ripple effects on other economic activities in terms of spending for other goods and services. 

Beyond the direct economic impacts, the study finds artisanal processing empowers women in other important ways. With a steady source of income, female processors prioritise investments that benefit their households and communities, such as children's education, health and nutrition. In a region where gender inequalities remain pervasive, this financial autonomy is invaluable for advancing women's empowerment and human development.

Challenges

However, major challenges hold back the full economic potential of Ghana's female artisanal processors. Their operations are highly informal, with crude pieces of equipment and minimal working capital. Underlying all of this are broader gender inequalities, from norms that exclude women from land ownership to a lack of control over household resources and decision-making.

The good news is that some modest policy reforms and programmes could go a long way to strengthening this sector and amplifying the development impacts of female processors' labour. Here are three priorities the government and other stakeholders can focus on today:

• Increase access to processing technologies and equipment through subsidies, microfinance programmes, or partnerships with universities and innovators. Mechanising certain steps such as fruit pounding and oil extraction would be a game-changer for artisanal productivity.

• Pilot a scalable initiative targeting female ownership of productive land in palm oil growing areas. Land ownership is a key barrier to capital formation and female anticipation in the oil palm industry in general. The pilot will help address negative norms and perceptions against women's engagement in farming. Additionally, there needs to be legislative reform to strengthen women’s property rights to increase inclusion in agriculture.

• Provide business training and skills development for female processors. Basic education around manufacturing best practices, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and more could significantly boost revenues and economic returns.

Advantages

The advantages of formalising and strengthening Ghana's artisanal palm oil processing sector are clear. It would increase employment and incomes for thousands of women entrepreneurs.

It would drive wider economic growth and development impacts as their earnings are reinvested into their families and communities. And it would promote gender equality and empowerment - key objectives for an equitable, sustainable society.

By prioritising female-run artisanal enterprises with effective policies and programmes, the Ghanaian government can unleash a powerful force for economic development and poverty reduction.

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Women palm oil processors have demonstrated their resilience and industriousness, with more support, they can turn their labour into lasting prosperity.
 
The writer is an experienced environment professional with a background in agriculture, natural resource management and circular supply chains. 

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