Projects per year
Palm oil is an important product in local diets and domestic markets in the South. The current attention for market quality standards and certification schemes in the palm oil sector has the risk to marginalise the role of palm oil in local food security and to direct public and private investments exclusively to industrial and export-oriented production systems. The rise of a variety of standards in the oil palm sector in recent times particularly the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has impacted on agricultural practices and the social and ecological environments of oil palm production worldwide. In this way, standards shape the way food provision is governed, with a consequence for how to organise production.
This thesis was motivated by the dominance of a technological trajectory organised around hybrid oil palm varieties, the strong focus on standards as instruments for sustainable development, and the formation and inclusion of organised farmers in the Ghanaian oil palm sector. The widespread use of red palm oil in local diets, processed from Dura oil palm fruits, and the employment and income opportunities for grouped women are less present in policy documents and scholarly literature. Oil palm sector policy in Ghana is largely biased towards the use of the high yielding hybrid planting materials and industrial processing. This raises a question how small-scale processors are able to make quality red palm oil, which utilises the unique traits of Dura? Starting point for this thesis is the array of opportunities for employment and income generation, especially for small-scale processors in Ghana, grounded in the making of oil with specific quality traits from a specific oil palm (elaeis guineensis).
The original assumption of the research was to explore whether a niche market for the specific traits of red palm oil, particularly in the diaspora, would offer new opportunities to combine sustainable livelihoods for women and the conservation of agro-biodiversity. Preliminary field work, however, showed that such a linear relationship does not exist. Hence, the research shifted attention to an important interface in the chain of red palm oil, namely the groups of women processing the fruits. The focus of the research shifted to first understand how women processors actually make this quality and how they organise around this process of material transformation. This is in line with the research program that takes a strong interest in developing a theory of practice, wherein the actual process of material transformation is linked to matters of social organisation, i.e. individual women working jointly in a group formation. This led to the question how the women’s groups processing oil palm organise and stay intact for longer periods (> 10 years), despite fluctuations in the availability of fruits, uncertainties in the market, and different social positions and organisational roles of the women members.
The objective of the thesis was to investigate social organisation and technological choices in the practices of material transformation in small-scale palm oil processing, and to assess to what extent and in what ways these practices, grounded in changeful natural and socio-economic environments, are reshaped or constrained by public policy, quality standards and value chain governance. This thesis investigates the making of quality with the aim i) to unravel the interactions between social action and organisation and material transformation processes in the making of quality; ii) to examine how non-localised rules and routines (e.g. in public policy and chain governance) affect collective performance. The thesis adopted a case study around the performance of groups of women processing palm oil and how they performed the tasks of milling, cooking and sourcing practices. It is through the performance of such tasks that the groups relates to its social, the natural and institutional environments. The findings were generated by using a technographic line of inquiry to unravel the socio-technical and institutional arrangements in the making of palm oil.
Contrasting the case study of how the women’s groups organise to perform the making of oil with the normative organisational model for organising value chains and production helped to put in context the observed threats posed by the market and policy environments.
The introductory chapter introduces the palm oil, the oil palm sector, as well as the dominant role of women in small-scale processing. Next the thesis investigates how women organise and manoeuvre changeful natural and institutional environments in two empirical chapters (2&3). The thesis makes a shift to a meso level analysis of standards based on a single case study (chapter 4). The concluding chapter discusses the additional value of the main findings from separate empirical chapters and their theoretical implications and policy recommendation for the wider oil palm sector.
Chapter 2: analyses everyday practices of the women’s groups, revealing how they organise to perform different tasks in processing. The practice of processing includes descriptions of how women join together in milling the fruits, ensure quality, and manage risks, transfer skill, techniques, and know-how leading to learning and inclusion of new members. The chapter questions why the women combines collectivity and individuality which underlies the performance of tasks and persist? It substantiate that the group form, structure and functioning responds to the making of quality. Consequently, group organisation is considered as a continuous process based on evolving practices rather than as an organisational fix based on technicalities and incentives. The case study reveals collection action as an emergent outcome which does not resemble more formal perspectives on how an organisation is supposed to work. The performance of tasks also links the groups to agro ecological conditions which are investigated in chapter 3.
Chapter 3 investigates the stability of the groups in relation to seasonal fluctuation in the supply of fruits. It argues that group persistence lies in the capacity of the groups to manoeuvre changeful institutional and material environments within which they perform. The chapter provides insight into how the practice of processing is linked to agro-ecological conditions and the mixture of crops grown on the farms. It identifies strategies and arrangements used in sourcing by individual women within the groups and network relationships. It documents the different institutional arrangements for securing fruits all year round and how they are managed. The chapter shows how the differentiation within the groups provides the flexibility and capacity to handle fluctuation in raw material supply.
A complementary focus of the research is on two processes that may enable or constrain collective performance. Chapter 4 analyses a case study of a medium-scale firm which processes palm oil for the local and the diaspora market. It argues that market standards may create a hidden imbalance in favour of better endowed (oil palm) firms while those with internal strength for developing products with unique qualities may be stifled. The chapter investigates how firm manages quality in the market, sourcing and cooking different recipes of palm oil of specific quality. The analytical question underlying this chapter is to unravel how firms respond to trade ad industrial standards. The data show that fluctuation in fruit supply required the use of different strategies to source both fruits and oil from other sources to ensure regular supply of product on the market. The evolving practices in cooking different recipes also required the use of skill, techniques, and know-how in processing to make palm oil with certain consistency in taste, colour, and texture that consumers require similar to the practices of the groups of women. The study shows that evolving practices in the making of quality palm oil may contradict prescribed standards. The case studies (2,3 &4) reveal diversity in the way firms and groups targeting different end use markets manage skilful tasks, use skill, tools and techniques which draws upon endogenous capabilities to manoeuvre changeful environments to make quality. The chapter opens a discussion on the RSPO, that its form of governance lacks the flexibility exhibited by the women’s groups and the firm to handle changeful environments in the making quality oil palm.
Chapter 5 explores how small-scale groups continue to perform with regards to policies focusing on hybrid varieties and industrial production of palm oil. The chapter argues that policies which tend to rely strongly on single recipes, e.g. expansion of hybrids or certification may have a lower level of flexibility to handle unpredicted situations. The chapter substantiates this by re-visiting the original assumption of the thesis that the unique qualities of Dura will translate into its conservation. It shows that market-led strategies which primarily considers mono-cropping systems and aims to realise biodiversity conservation outside the boundaries of local production systems may constrain the capacity of farmers to navigate in changeful natural and economic conditions. It underscores preference for Dura in food preparation, threats to the conservation Dura, and the different configurations: based on small-scale processing embedded in diverse farming systems and agro-ecological conditions, which supports Dura conservation.
The general discussion (Chapter 6) builds upon the main findings from the empirical to conclude that it is the diversity in groups, firms, and plant material that explains quality as an emergent property. It synthesises the technographic insights and findings and critically discusses the linear explanation of collective action. It shows why an evolutionary and processual perspective, related to task performance and materiality, should be brought into the discussion. This insight has important implication for methodologies, policies, and development interventions, which are more inclined to strive for uniform practices rather than building on the nitty-gritty details of the making of quality by small, female processors or medium, processing firms. The thesis relates the social analysis of performance and collectivity in the making of palm oil to the wider pattern of declining agro-biodiversity, and, accordingly, contributes to a broader discussion on organisational processes and management of development in agricultural food systems/ systems of food provision.
|Qualification||Doctor of Philosophy|
|Award date||28 Oct 2014|
|Place of Publication||Wageningen|
|Publication status||Published - 2014|
- palm oils
- small businesses
- medium sized businesses