A closer look at certifying 5,000 Sierra Leonean smallholders

Photo Credit: RSPO/Goldtree Sierra Leone Ltd.

Q&A with Rosine Nsegbe, Group Sustainability Manager, Goldtree Sierra Leone Ltd

Africa has long been heralded as the new frontier of commercial oil palm expansion. The region currently has an estimated 4 million hectares of oil palm production spread across 22 countries and, as an emerging market for palm oil, accounts for about 5% of global palm oil output and at least 10% of global palm oil demand.

At the heart of this expansion in Africa are smallholder farmers who comprise an average of 70% of the total production area. While the expansion of oil palm production represents significant potential for socioeconomic development and poverty reduction, several challenges continue to afflict smallholders, including poor management practices, low yields, and inadequate planting materials.

Faced with these challenges, RSPO recently achieved a milestone in Africa — certifying the first Independent Smallholders Group of nearly 5,000 farmers in Sierra Leone. The Ngoyaï Gbaayegie Group, within the catchment area of Goldtree Sierra Leone Ltd., has attained certification for an impressive 4,983 Independent Smallholders, owning a total land area of 8,667 hectares. Currently, they represent the single largest RSPO certified Independent Smallholder group across all producing regions. This milestone was realised through the RSPO Smallholder Support Fund (RSSF), with technical support from the RSPO Secretariat. Goldtree Sierra Leone Ltd., who doubled as the Group Manager, carried out on the ground implementation.

To get a closer look at the collaborative efforts behind this achievement, RSPO spoke with Rosine Nsegbe, Group Sustainability manager of Goldtree, who oversaw the RSPO training of the Ngoyaï Gbaayegie Group. She discusses the main challenges and key lessons learned during the process that eventually led to Milestone B certification; the final phase in the Independent Smallholder Standard’s stepwise certification approach.


Smallholders are fueling the momentum of the oil palm industry boom in Africa. Yet African smallholders are faced with many challenges — could you tell us about some of their most critical challenges?

The main challenges of African smallholders are, first of all, the poor yield as a result of the variety and quality of the fruit they grow. Secondly, poor infrastructure and challenges of having market access in order to distribute their fruit, due to bad road networks. We are also using the orthodox system of production and processing of the Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFBs), which deviates from the application of best management practices and good agricultural processes. A majority of the farmers also use fire for land preparation — this is due to the lack of financial resources to acquire labour or mechanical tools to conduct the land preparation. We also have logging for the production of charcoal used for domestic purposes and for additional incomes in their livelihood.

Another challenge is the high level of illiteracy among farmers, which makes it difficult to properly record their production and other farm activities. There is also the high cost of the certification process, such as purchasing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), training, certification costs, etc. This is difficult to attain for the smallholders without support from larger growers, companies or other institutions, so the smallholders need more support from external bodies.

The last challenge is the vast diversity of the smallholders, which makes it difficult to standardise since they are opposed to working with them.


What specific training was given to the smallholders of the Ngoyaï Gbaayegie Group to address some of these challenges?

We conducted several training sessions to address these challenges, such as training on RSPO best management and good agricultural practices, training on health and safety, training on the use of fire and waste management, including emergency response. We gave them several training sessions on financial literacy, and on the benefits of being in a sustainable group.

As part of the RSPO training, we taught them about High Conservation Value (HCV), social sustainability, legal labour practices, and also how to develop and implement the group management plan, and to work efficiently within their group.

We trained a total of 7,424 smallholders but we certified just 4,983. Nevertheless, we are preparing everyone to achieve certification.


How long were the training sessions for such a large group of smallholders?

A session of training is one day, from morning to afternoon, which was carried out for eight to 10 weeks. The training takes place at the various Farmer Field School (FFS) centres, the group has 160 centres with an average of 50 farmers per FFS. The training sessions are conducted by the group of Internal Control System Officers (ICSO), we have 16 groups of 2 ICSO. To cover our topics, we took 10 days per group of Internal Control System Officers (ICSO).


How did the smallholders first react to the training, initially? Was there pushback or any kind of resistance at first?

From day one the farmers were very excited about the training and requested for more of such training. However, some of the challenges of the training process were that the sessions were long — this affected the level of concentration of the farmers. Sometimes, the distance they needed to travel to come to the training and the transport reimbursement was also an issue. But other than that, there was no resistance for the training.


What are the key lessons to take away from this experience and for Goldtree achieving this milestone certification from RSPO?

The key lessons for this experience for Goldtree achieving this certification are, firstly, that there is a need for more funding for the smallholders, as it is very expensive to achieve smallholder inclusion for the production of sustainable palm oil, such as the cost of PPE, cost of training, cost to map the farms, developing and establishing the farmers’ support centre and the farmers’ field school, etc.

There is also a need to have a well-structured farmer organisation and a very good internal control system to monitor the activity of the group. Finally, good managers should demonstrate a good understanding of the Independent Smallholder Standard and have the capacity to develop a good business plan for the smallholders, which is the key point of the smallholders’ project.


Is there any personal story you’d like to share regarding the training and certification process?

As a personal story, my function and activity with the smallholders has brought great motivation to the young ladies in the community, who were visited during the smallholder group training. The ladies among the group were motivated to go to school with the hope to someday become a manager of their farmer group — just as I am today.

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