Making palm oil

This is the first in a series of images that didn’t make it in my new book, Oil Palm: a Global History. This photo was taken in the early twentieth century and printed on a postcard sold in the Gold Coast (today, Ghana). The back of the postcard unfortunately says nothing interesting. The photo shows a group of men, women, and children pounding out oil palm fruit in an earthen pit. Several young oil palms fill the background.

This technique was common among the Krobo, a group spread across southeastern Ghana who were pioneers of large-scale palm oil production in the nineteenth century.

Typically, these pits were lined with stones or fiber mats (often woven from palm fronds) and were used by families and communities for many years. Once the mashing was complete, workers scooped out the oily liquid to refine the finished palm oil. Similar techniques are still used in parts of Africa’s oil palm belt, though mashing is often done in pots or troughs. Newer machines like the Freedom Mill eliminate the need for pounding in large-scale artisanal production.

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