PhD sart-up seminar: Smallholder palm oil growers and sustainability in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary assessment

Zoë S. Ogahara will present an overview of the PhD project ‘Smallholder palm oil growers and sustainability in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary assessment’.


This research explores the idea of an inclusive sustainability transition in the palm oil sector. Smallholders play an important part in the production of palm oil, accounting for 40 percent of production worldwide (RSPO, 2021). However, they are largely excluded from formal discourses on sustainable palm oil. Smallholders farm only 13.8 percent of the total RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified area and only 1.3 percent of the total RSPO certified area is attributed to those who make their own management decisions (independent smallholders) (Apriani et al., 2020; RSPO, 2021). This is important because many EU countries, corporations and consumers have pledged to buy only sustainable palm oil based on such certification schemes.

This PhD research conceptualises the promotion of sustainable palm oil for smallholders as a ‘mission-oriented agricultural innovation system’ (Klerkx & Begemann, 2020). The first paper uses a literature review to delineate the key ‘missions’ of sustainable palm oil, examining how ‘upgrading’ is framed by different stakeholders and considers the likely environmental, social and economic outcomes according to the academic literature. The second paper will utilise existing survey data collected in Sabah, Malaysia in 2017 among smallholder palm oil growers to construct an 'infrastructural view' of the agricultural innovation system (AIS); it aims to establish the main influential characteristics, organisations and policies that encourage sustainable practices among smallholders. The third paper will rather view the AIS as a process, and will investigate the risks and benefits for smallholders in the process of obtaining sustainability certification using survey data (from 2015, 2017, and 2022?) and interviews with smallholders in the Telupid district of Sabah. The subject of the fourth paper is to test various policy and institutional interventions based on the previous papers by examining smallholders’ willingness to accept sustainability measures and certification using choice experiments in Sarawak, Malaysia, where there is no state-level policy on the promotion of sustainable palm oil. The fifth and final paper has rather a ‘functional’ view of the AIS by evaluating the success of a ‘system’ in promoting sustainable palm oil. This will be done through a social network analysis of the jurisdictional approach to sustainable palm oil certification in Sabah, Malaysia, based on in-depth interviews with key stakeholders.