Oil palm has historically played an important role in Benin and oil palm plantations, as opposed to naturally occurring palm groves, were established in the 19th century to meet an increasingly greater demand for palm oil from Western countries, primarily to supply their soap factories.By this time, oil palm was grown on an estimated 500,000 hectares of land in Benin, and the processing of oil palm products was entirely manual, carried out by women small-scale producers.
The first oil palm sector industrialization programme was launched in the 1950s. The colonial government invested in large-scale, public industrial processing facilities, and after independence in 1960, the national government established more of these facilities with even greater capacity, and planted around 30,000 hectares of selected oil palm seedlings between 1960 and 1974.
But difficulties quickly arose, both internal (decrease in rainfall and thus in oil palm production yield, poor management, etc.) and external (competition with Asian countries, etc.). These factors decreased the profitability of the large industrial complexes and discouraged the government from further developing the industrial oil palm sector. These same difficulties had an impact on small-scale plantations as well, whose combined area, estimated at 500,000 hectares in the 1930s, dropped to 300,000 hectares by the end of the century.
The creation of plantation blocs between 1960 and 1974 had led to the expropriation of the land of 17,000 peasant farmers, who were supposed to receive an annual rent as compensation. The farmers considered the rent offered to be insufficient, and complained of the constant delays in payment. Although protest against the scheme began with the first expropriations, it remained muted during the “authoritarian” political regime in Benin (1972-1990), but was stepped up following the return to democracy. In 1993, after 2,000 hectares of oil palm plantations were destroyed by the former owners of the land, the government decided to triple the annual rent paid to them. Industrial palm oil production accounts for about 20% of total production in the sector, but most of it is exported. In 2000, 83% of the domestic palm oil market in Benin was supplied by the thousands of women small-scale producers (industrial production accounted for 7%, and the remaining 10% was imported). Small-scale traditional production has predominated throughout the century, and has successfully adapted to constantly changing conditions, on both the supply side (fluctuations in the volume of raw material available) and the demand side (market diversification).
Until today, the small-scale, traditional production of palm oil has been carried out almost entirely by women, individually or sometimes with the help of family members. These women producers use completely manual techniques. There has been no obvious process of market concentration in the sector, which has remained widely spread out among the population.
Beginning in the 1990s, the government of Benin and its financial backers decided to opt for a new approach; large industrial processing facilities under public management had clearly demonstrated their limitations. These were privatized over the course of the decade, and support was provided for the creation of small private operations, through the distribution of selected oil palm seedlings and the promotion of processing equipment. A programme for the distribution of selected palm seedlings was initiated in 1993. Private nurseries, authorized and subsidized by the government, sell these seedlings to the public at fixed prices.
A new category of actors appeared in the sector: planters of selected oil palm varieties. Their strategy is wholly different from that of planters of naturally occurring oil palms. The latter normally combine the cultivation of oil palm with the growing of subsistence crops, while the former tend to specialize in oil palm and become “planters” as opposed to “farmers”. Under current conditions in south Benin, where it is now possible to own land, these planters purchase parcels of land that they devote specifically to the cultivation of oil palm. These new planters are almost entirely men. Women small-scale producers are rarely able to own their own palm plantations. The oil palm’s status as a cash crop, reinforced by a symbolic aspect (as a “symbol of wealth”), has given rise to a process of growing monopolization of the sector by men.
These male planters are fully aware of the profits they can make from processing, especially if they have the capacity to stockpile. Currently, roughly one planter out of two keeps at least a part of his production and hires women small-scale producers to process it. For the last decade, development organizations have supported the distribution of processing equipment (presses and mixers) as part of their emphasis on enhancing technical capacity.
In addition to the economic benefits, there is also a social benefit. The owner of a mechanized workshop benefits from a social prestige that is not enjoyed by planters who hire women to process their production. Investment by planters in the downstream segment of the production chain is thus likely to increase even further.
The growing number of planters who process their production themselves has a direct impact on women small-scale producers: the volume of raw material (oil palm fruit) available to them will consequently decrease. Since these women are most often unable to own their own palm plantations, many could find themselves excluded from the sector. And given that a good number of women in south Benin earn part of their income by producing palm oil, the development of mechanization could prove problematic.
Unlike the industrial sector, which has its own supply and marketing networks, the small semi-mechanized workshops are in direct competition with the women small-scale producers.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this overview of the situation is that the current programme for the development of the oil palm sector, based on the distribution of selected oil palm seedlings and equipment, benefits only one category of actors, which it has actually created: the “new” private plantation owners. These planters will enjoy a competitive advantage over women small-scale producers on several levels, because they benefit from privileged access to raw materials; their mechanized processing techniques allow for lower cost prices; and their larger production volumes allow for bulk sales that are more attractive to retailers.
According to a study published in 2007, “Plans for the development of an agrofuel industry in Benin have the strong backing of government, and make up a key part of the government’s Agricultural Revival Programme for economic development.” (http://www.africanbiodiversity.org/media/1210585739.pdf)
In line with these plans, Benin has received visits from various industrial groups from Malaysia and South Africa who have proposed the conversion of 300,000-400,000 hectares in the wetlands of the southern part of Benin [Ouémé, Plateau, Atlantic, Mono, Couffo and Zou] for production of oil palm. (1)
More recently, a report (2) announced the visit of a delegation of Chinese agricultural engineers and entrepreneurs who were willing to invest some 2.15 million dollars in Benin’s palm oil industry over the next five years to increase production and mechanize the oil palm industry.
Regrettably, these plans have taken no notice of the warning of the above mentioned study: “There are already a number of palm tree monoculture plantations in the south of Benin” which should “serve as a warning against future developments, due to the complications and difficulties experienced by communities attempting to sell their palm products.”
(1) Excerpted and adapted from “Oil palm in Africa: Past, present and future scenarios” by Ricardo Carrere, WRM, December 2010, http://www.wrm.org.uy/plantations/material/Palm2.pdf