Since palm oil exports accounted for 75% of Ghana’s export revenue in the 1880s, processing African Palm fruits into oil has remained an integral part of the Ghanaian economy. Palm oil is primarily cultivated by small-scale farmers, rather than industrial-scale processors, and is used as a vegetable oil in local cooking. Palm oil is also used in a plethora of products sold in developed countries including baked goods, cosmetics, washing detergents, and toothpaste. The sustainability and environmental impact of palm oil varies by country, cultivation, and processing technique, but I’ll be sharing what I’ve experienced traveling to small-scale processors in Ghana. Enjoy!
First, farmers use a machete to hack large clusters of fully ripened palm fruits from the tree and then begin the lengthy process of hand pick each fruit for processing.
Next, the fruits are boiled to both sterilize and soften the pulp…
…after which they are pounded in a giant mortar and pestle (or motor driven grinder) to separate the pulp from the kernel. The kernels are collected as a byproduct and sold to specialized processors to create palm kernel oil.
The resulting slurry is soaked in warm water, and the kernels and fibrous strands are removed by hand, after which the solution is boiled for several hours. The resulting oil is skimmed from the surface, boiled one more time to reduce moisture, and then stored for sale. The fiber is another byproduct of palm oil production and is often used as a fire-starter.
And those are the basics of palm oil processing! Essentially, labor involved with picking and pounding the fruits is a known pain point within the process, and wood fueled fires lead to increased deforestation, CO2 emissions, and air pollutant related ailments. With around 80% of Ghanaian palm oil produced by small-scale farmers, it is important that potential improvements to the process are low-cost and easily adopted in rural areas.