This article uses colonial-era Ghana as a case study in the challenges of mechanization in West Africa's oil palm industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. While European industrialists pursued plantation-mill complexes in places like Congo and Southeast Asia, African entrepreneurs and government officials in British colonies focused on developing machines suitable for the small-scale producers who had built up the industry over the course of the nineteenth century. As inventors and officials discovered, however, machinery was unable to address the full range of economic, social, and natural challenges posed by oil palm trees. While some colonial observers alleged that racial characteristics or cultural conservatism were to blame for the failure of machines, the economic logic that underlay farmers' decisions was straightforward. Machines were too expensive and insufficiently productive, given prevailing prices for palm oil. Frustrated colonial governments tried to bridge the gap between larger mills and smallholder machines in the 1920s and 1930s, but with no success. By the time local factors shifted in favor of smallholder machines, colonial and national governments had moved on to large mills with accompanying plantations, leaving small-scale producers behind.


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pp. 69-103
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