The good oil?

Using a machete to deparate palm nuts from the cluster.

Aunty Akosia at the beginning of the long process of producing palm oil in the village. (Or she may have been going to make palm nut soup, I actually can’t remember, but they both start the same way).

I have often written here about how much I love palm oil. It has a flavour like no other oil. Only yesterday I was telling a friend about a meal I once ate in Accra, that consisted of not much more than very fresh white fish, onion and chilli, almost completely submerged in this rich red oil and eaten with kenkey. Swoon.

I realise that this passion may sound a bit suspicious to people who don’t know about palm oil’s important place in Ghanaian cuisine, but are very much aware of the destructive impact of palm oil plantations in Asia.

The world’s voracious appetite for palm oil – stripped of its unique colour and flavour for use in almost everything from packaged biscuits to soap to biofuels – has resulted in severe deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced. Replacing forests with massive plantations endangers animals such as the orang-utan and sumatran tiger, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and can displace local communities.

So it’s good to see a new report, jointly released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Australia and the Australian Food & Grocery Council (AFGC), which “highlights the commitment by many major Australian manufacturers and importers to source only sustainable palm oil,”(- AFGC Chief Executive Officer Gary Dawson). Here, here!

The report is a local initiative that furthers the aims of the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)The RSPO encourages sustainability in all palm oil producing countries and raises awareness of the issues among palm-oil consumers. Apparently it’s impossible to stop using palm oil, because the alternatives could cause worse environmental problems – so sustainability is not an option, but an imperative. (Although frankly I think we could do without many of the fattening, sugar-rich products that contain palm oil).

Ghana, which happens to be the home of the oil palm kernels that set the Malaysian plantations on their way, is understandably keen to get back its share in this huge global market and has been expanding its commercial palm oil production over the past few years. That’s the kind of scenario that could easily end in environmental disaster, so I am relieved to report that Ghana has its own RSPO implementation group. Let’s hope it is effective.

While there are now some big plantations in Ghana, 80% of production is still by small scale farmers who have been growing and processing palm oil for hundreds, if not thousands of years for local consumption. One stretch of road between Kumasi and Accra  – near Jejeti – is famous for it; lined on both sides for several kilometres with stacks of white plastic bottles full of the locally grown and processed product.

This video of home-grown palm oil production ‘for private use and local sales’ doesn’t convey the taste but maybe the colour will help you understand why I rave about it. This is pretty much how I’ve seen it being made in Mensakrom, except that in Mensakrom they didn’t have a press, but pounded the pulp by hand.


You can also check out this photo-essay on MokoCharlie.

Years ago DadaK explained to me the difference in quality between the different kinds of palm oil then available in Australia. The translucent, jewel-coloured – but liquid – Malaysian product was the least desirable. He preferred the bottles from the roadside stalls, imported by enterprising expats and full of solidified dark orange oil that was boiled off in the big village cauldrons. You had to sit the bottle in hot water to melt enough to cook with.

These days the packaging is a little more sophisticated and the source is probably a little more industrialised, but the oil our family eats is still, I believe, from a relatively small scale industry. And having been an important food in Ghana for centuries, I think that it’s probably been – more or less – sustainably grown. I hope that with the RSPO’s support, that sustainability won’t be lost as Ghana increases production for the global market – for western and Asian consumers who rely on palm oil even as they don’t know what they’re really missing.

Breaking news

Indonesia is expected to extend a ban on clearing rainforest -The Guardian reports on ‘a historic deal that could protect some of the world’s most threatened habitats.’


2 thoughts on “The good oil?

    • No, that is certainly true, and of course there has been massive disruption to traditional systems anyway due to colonialism and now globalisation. I know that big companies are trying to get a foothold for mass production in Africa, not only of palm oil but other things. Very challenging.

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