Working with smallholder suppliers poses many logistical challenges that palm oil producers must overcome. Smallholders often lack knowledge, finances, and overall capacity needed to implement the requirements of certification.

One company that is taking steps to certify all its smallholders is New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL), which operates in the Solomon Islands and is Papua New Guinea’s largest oil palm plantation and milling operator.

As of September 2012, 31,334 hectares (ha) of smallholder operations associated with NBPOL (out of a total of 45,043 ha) were certified by the RSPO. Also, eight out of twelve of NBPOL’s palm oil mills and plantations were certified under RSPO standards as well as three out of four palm kernel mills. The company’s core activity is the cultivation and processing of oil palm into crude palm oil (CPO), palm kernel oil (PKO) and palm kernel expeller (PKE) for sale to both domestic and foreign markets, particularly in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia.

This interview with Simon Lord (Global Sustainability Director for NBPOL) was conducted by Sophia Gnych (ZSL Biodiversity and Palm Oil Project Developer) and Philip Rothrock (ZSL Research Assistant).

 1. What was the impetus for these smallholders to be certified? Did anyone conduct a gap analysis of smallholder capacity? How were goals, timelines, and methods determined?

New Britain Palm Oil (NBPOL) has sought to certify all associated smallholders in order to create a segregated and transparent supply chain to Europe. In principle this sounded straight forward and whilst not complicated, it was a complex set of procedures to undertake.

The first step was to identify all the smallholders. NBPOL has a database of all its smallholders, detailing ownership and monitoring supply, but what it didn’t have was the exact locations of the smallholders. A comprehensive mapping exercise was undertaken to establish their locations.  This base line survey used GPS and satellite imagery to locate and define our smallholder population. The information was inserted into a database and the maps and information was then linked via GIS to enable information to be spatially represented. Then survey teams went out again to interview each of the 8,000 smallholders and their families as well as ground-truthing the GIS map data. NBPOL developed 16 baseline questions that had mutually exclusive answers for the survey using RSPO guidelines for smallholders. Each smallholder was scored based on their compliance to RSPO smallholder guidance. Individual questions, aspects, or aggregations of all of the 16 questions were used to check overall performance. The information was Red Amber Green colour-coded whereby green indicates compliance, amber minor non-conformance and red major non-conformance.  By visually depicting the information on maps, a mosaic was created in which deficiencies in performance in any aspects was readily seen. This informed us where to target training or raise awareness where needed. In addition, as groups of smallholders had specific extension officers looking after their needs, the appearance of clusters of non conformance in a geographic region also highlighted where further support was needed for the officer in that cluster.

At each step and before action was taken, awareness sessions of the activities being proposed were held and local radio stations were used extensively to broadcast NBPOL’s intentions. Where possible local associations of landowners were also notified and asked to assist in organising awareness sessions. The regular smallholder “field days” were used as venues for engagement. Smallholders were also notified in person when they collected their pay checks.

These simple techniques provided a baseline gap analysis and identified training requirements, whilst at the same time forming the basis for measurement and a monitoring program. The key was in constructing the question in the correct format and in attaching numerical scores which allowed clear analysis.

Reassessment was necessary after each round of awareness campaigns and training sessions in order to monitor improvements. The whole process took two years to bring an operation into compliance with RSPO requirements.

Lastly, NBPOL recognises that smallholders need incentives to maintain the effort that certification took. As the sustainability premium has not always been available for all the certified oil produced due to unwillingness for some customers to pay or demand the use of CSPO this momentum can be lost. To address this issue the company provides a 10 USD sustainability bonus to all of the smallholders for each tonne of oil they produce. These payments continue on an annual basis.

2. Which different stakeholders were involved with this process, what were their roles, and how was their role determined?

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a government supported extensions service (oddly named the Oil Palm Industry Corporation or OPIC). However the government struggles to maintain this and it is under resourced. The government should provide agricultural advice on BMP in all aspects of smallholder production. To augment these extension officers, NBPOL has had created its own teams called Smallholders Affairs or SHA which provides this advice. NBPOL provides, soft loans for seeds, tools and equipment and through regular radio broadcasts advices smallholders on a whole range of issues from environmental awareness to social and medical advice. In addition, NBPOL has appointed sustainability teams in all of its locations. Jointly these groups worked with the smallholders on the logistical aspects of applying the certification standard. In total about 60 people were involved in this support system meaning there was one officer for over 130 smallholder families.

Once the technical aspects were overcome and gaps or areas of deficiency identified, NBPOL engaged specialists to assist with the targeted training such as management of river buffer zones, control of waste and where applicable herbicide storage use and disposal. The NGO Solidaridad has assisted NBPOL throughout and is still involved in what is called the ASH program (Associated Smallholder Program). Other organisations such as the Australian based NGO Little Fishes and the ANZ bank were also involved, establishing financial management strategies for those families who have prospered under the programme. Further engagement of PNG grass root NGO’s is now a crucial phase the programme has moved to as maintaining certification is even more difficult than achieving it in the first place.

NBPOL maintains a programme of using radio broadcasts on a regular basis to update smallholders on sustainability issues. The company found this to be the most appropriate vehicle for communication an initiative fully supported by the Broadcasting Corporation of PNG.

3. Analyze how to manage certification processes for smallholders. How can companies make the process as efficient and effective as possible?

Through undertaking this work NBPOL believes that the RSPO certification process for smallholders has become over complicated and unwieldy. The system needs to be reviewed and streamlined by being broken down to more pragmatic aspects if additional independent, as well as schemed smallholder, are to be certified. The system needs to be simplified into a code of practice which is applicable to the scale of operations of smallholders globally, taking into account that the vast majority of smallholders in countries outside of Malaysia and Indonesia are illiterate.

The process needs to become less bureaucratic and mores results focused. The amount of documentation needs to be reduced and more creative and objective forms of evidence of compliance should be accepted. The average estate (1,000 ha) requires about 16 lever arch files to be maintained in order to satisfy RSPO auditors that records are maintained to demonstrate compliance. The same number would be required to demonstrate compliance for a group or an individual smallholder wishing to be certified. This burden has practical issues of storage as most smallholders do not live in air conditioned houses or indeed have spare storage available. Even if certification is achieved, literacy issues will likely contribute to the breakdown of the process in a short space of time.

Instead more emphasis should be given to mapping and the state of awareness of smallholders rather than documentary evidence. We believe that this will improve sampling and the duration of audits. In PNG for example, not all block holders live on site and not all, although an increasing number do, have mobile phones.

NBPOL has committed time and resources to the RSPO Smallholder Working Group since its conception in order to assist them find global solutions. NBPOL is now co-chair of this working group and is also on the advisory Board of the Pro-Forest mediated Smallholder Acceleration and REDD+ Program (SHARP) initiative which aims to assist companies certify associated smallholders.

4. Did the educational achievement, language, and work experience influence the achievement of the smallholders toward certification? If so, how? Was the same general assistance provided to all the smallholders or was it customized to fit varying needs?

In PNG, the customary demands of the people make them less like farmers and more like foragers, seeking crops when traditional needs arise such as for weddings and funerals or for more modern demands such as school fees. These issues have been the greatest hurdle for NBPOL rather than education or language barriers.

With over 8,000 smallholders on one island, NBPOL never had the resources to treat different subsets of smallholders separately. In an ideal world this might be possible, but in reality a company can either apply intervention to the lowest or most common denominator. To manage expectations and avoid making assumptions about smallholder capabilities, NBPOL developed methodologies appropriate for all our smallholder partners.

The Company’s uniform approach has worked and it has since rolled out this approach to all NBPOL operations including the smallholders attached to these sites.

5. What goals were set? Were the smallholders able to achieve them? Did your team find any indicators that were useful for gauging progress?

NBPOL has been working with smallholders for over 40 years, with a high degree of interaction with these partners focused towards improving production practices. The Company set the simple, clear goal of achieving compliance with the RSPO standard for all units, within two years of beginning to implement the scheme. To date this goal has been achieved within the parameters set and as a result increases in smallholder yields have risen in line with plantation yields. We have strived to develop a participatory approach, providing credit, training, support and supervision in agricultural management techniques and sustainability. We try to assess small holders capacity and progress based on their: access to viable transport and good roads for transporting their fresh fruit bunches to the mills, use of up-to-date fertiliser, conduct sufficient plot maintenance and pruning, and replant where yields are sub-optimal. The implementation of the RSPO standards by small holders would lead to even better productivity in the smallholder sector, as well as increase their income and improve sustainability. For example in the average production of some of the small holder controlled areas are almost 14 tonnes per hectare with the aim of increasing the yields up to 25 tonnes in three years.

6. What were the most successful strategies for helping smallholders to become certified?

Planning and Commitment

It is essential that time is spent on identifying targets and the means to measure progress in achieving these to develop a sound and strategic approach. Break down the process into clear steps and further develop the tactics required to obtain the results you want from each of the targets. It’s key that you don’t under estimate the logistical aspects of such initiatives. Keep all plans dynamic, flexible and simple. Be systematic in approach, but inflexible in commitment. Set milestones and review points in each step. Identify a senior co-ordinator to provide the oversight for the initiative. Consider how the data collected will be analysed. Explore the involvement of third parties such as civil society and NGO’s at the earliest possible time, ideally even before the planning stage.


Identify and quantify all smallholders you want to include. Where possible simplify the supply chain including (if they exist) intermediates such as middlemen. Develop a robust data capture system that is easy for people on the ground to implement. Use GPS and GIS technologies. Produce maps that are then ground-truthed. Assess land use variables and smallholders via interviews.

Keep people informed by the most appropriate means. To do this, identify a matrix of points where the company and smallholders interact. Rank these by degree of interaction and then identify what information or communication can be transferred through such contacts. Think creatively for all messages. Employ appropriate technology, radios, mobile phone texting, Facebook or newspapers. Ensure messages are simple and unambiguous. Break down complicated messages into much simpler themes and local languages. Involve third parties wherever possible.

Performance Assessment

Review the performance of the programme frequently to maintain a dynamic approach to ensure that efforts are targeting in the right areas to achieve the results you want, instead of spending months gathering data which is of no use. Perform ‘reality’ checks with the data. Compare and contrast different areas to check if the data is robust. Identify innovative ways to check if the results are reproducible in other areas. Use a matrix of interaction to obtain feedback from those participating in the programme (both in delivery and implementation). Remember that communication is a two way process so build in review periods, whereby the information gathered can be assessed and plans altered accordingly.


Once these baseline data has been collected and analysed, set clear, SMART objectives. Apply these objectives by geography or issue. If a traffic light (RAG) or simple 1, 2, 3 numerical system has been used, set incremental target such as a 50% increase in green on the map or a simple overall numerical increase. Use the data to develop targeted improvements. No company has the resources to tackle all issue immediately therefore analyse the results and use them to prioritise the issues to be tackled.

Management Review

Set timelines for all aspects of the programme including: monitoring, reporting, verification, feedback, and review. Be transparent and communicate with all stakeholders. Ask the difficult questions, such as did our actions achieve good results? If not, why not? Involve smallholders and third parties in the review process. If possible conduct an audit with third parties or certification bodies to identify gaps and then repeat the above steps.