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Agro-Commodity Global Value Chains and Upgrading: The Case of Malaysian Palm Oil



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This dissertation consists of three closely related essays on upgrading in agro-commodity value chains, which is an important issue for many developing countries that produce and export commodities in mostly unprocessed form. The essays are based on fieldwork in Malaysia and focus on its palm oil, which is the world’s largest oils and fats product by production and export volumes.

The first essay examines the suitability of vertical specialisation for participation and upgrading in agro-commodity value chains based on the case of Malaysian palm oil. It uses data from interviews, site visits, and industry and economic statistics to analyse upgrading at the sector and firm levels. The essay suggests that upgrading is prone to sectoral linkage development and vertical integration at local lead firms. The development is driven by production characteristics, sectoral dynamics, eco-historical settings that are unique to agro-commodity value chains, as well as firm motives seeking resources, markets, efficiency gains, and strategic assets.

The second essay studies Malaysia’s industrial policy for its palm oil sector through three distinct stages of development. The findings show that resource-based industrialisation (RBI) requires selective state intervention targeting macroeconomic conditions, infrastructure, business climate, and human capital. The Malaysian experience also highlights the importance of local firms in driving RBI investments, contrary to the emphasis in the literature which either overplays the importance of foreign linkages or dismisses nationality of firms as a non-factor for industrialisation.

The third essay investigates economic and social outcomes from upgrading in the Malaysian palm oil sector using gross value added data. It shows that economic upgrading can but does not automatically lead to social upgrading. The essay finds that economic upgrading in value chains improves income of groups of individuals at different rates depending on their position in the value chains. Skills and productivity performance provide only partial explanation for the uneven social outcomes; the differences in institutional arrangements and political representation accorded to the groups are likely to be important factors as well.





Peter, Nolan


Global Value Chains, Global Production Networks, Transnational Production, Industrialisation, Linkage Development, Agricultural Commodities, Upgrading, Industrial Policy, East and South East Asia, Malaysia


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust