On my recent journey to Ghana, I had the privilege of visiting cocoa farmers in the community of Asarkewaa in the Central Region. It was a special day for me, finding myself at ground zero for cocoa. These farmers work hard to give the world chocolate on a scale that craft chocolate makers can only imagine.
While Ghana cocoa may not be heavily represented in the craft chocolate market, it constitutes the backbone of the world’s chocolate supply. Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world, accounting for 20% of world production, about half of the output of its neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire, which produces 40% of the world’s cocoa. Together these two form a juggernaut of cocoa. Whatever they do affects the world cocoa market. While they have not been in sync in the past, they’ve recently begun to work together to improve the incomes of farmers. It is a promising first step.
I was accompanied on my visit to the Asarekwaa community by my good friend, Dr. Kristy Leissle, a renowned cocoa and chocolate scholar and author of the book, “Cocoa“. As a researcher of cocoa and chocolate with a focus on West Africa, she was great to have along.
Our first stop in the community was a visit to cocoa farmer Abdul Razak and his family. Mr. Razak farms more acreage than anyone else in the community, and he was gracious enough to spend over an hour with us answering our many questions. I would like to share his comments as a window into the life of a cocoa farmer in Ghana.
Mr. Razak farms a series of plots that add up to 33 poles. I learned that 1-1/2 poles equals 1 acre, so Mr. Razak is farming 22 acres. The largest of these farms is 11 acres. He is a sharecropper, sharing the produce of the land with five other families that farm cocoa. The owners of the land live in nearby Brakwa and are cocoa farmers themselves.
He farms two types of cocoa, one he referred to as “Amazonia” (its ancestors were probably Amelonado from the Upper Amazon) and a new hybrid that has been provided by Ghana Cocoa Board, the COCOBOD.
While Amazonia has a longer life span of 30+ years, the hybrid offers a higher yield over 25 years. He said that for every 4 bags of Amazonia he would harvest 5 bags of the hybrid. Upon further questioning, however, he said that the Amazonia weighs more when it’s dried. He gets paid by cocoa weight so he ends up getting paid more for the Amazonia than he does for the hybrid.
So why is COCOBOD encouraging farmers to plant the hybrid? There are a number of reasons. First, their research says that the hybrids are more disease resistant. Second, the hybrids fruit in just 2 years resulting in a faster harvest for Mr. Razak and the cocoa farmers who plant the hybrids. The beans on this new fruit are small at the beginning, but they get larger as the tree grows. I asked Mr. Razak if he was happy with the new hybrid given the lower weight and I’d paraphrase his answer by saying, “Yes, but ask me in 25 years” (the predicted life of the trees). He added that the COCOBOD are the experts who have done the research, so he trusts what they recommend.
Mr. Razak spoke highly of the COCOBOD and the services they provide. He said they had provided education on fertilizer application, pruning and disease control. The most common disease in this community is swollen shoot, which requires them to cut the affected trees down and apply a chemical to the stump so it doesn’t germinate and contaminate the rest of the trees. While there are disease controls, new diseases are always a concern. There is a new parasite disease that attacks older trees of all kinds, including cocoa trees. We saw this disease on a non-cocoa tree, so it is present and unchecked in this community.
COCOBOD has extension officers who visit the cocoa growing communities and provide education and training. The extension officers are assigned to 16-20 communities and live in one of them. We learned from the leaders of the community at a later meeting that the cooperative was taught to prune by the extension officers and had adopted the practice 6-8 years earlier. They now prune yearly and said that the pruning had resulted in crop improvement across the board.
The COCOBOD sets the price of cocoa at the beginning of each season so farmers know what they will make on their cocoa. There are “Licensed Buying Companies” (LBC’s) that are licensed by the government to purchase cocoa from farmers and sell it to COCOBOD. There are three LBC’s in this community including Amanjelo, Amaranjo and PBC, the buying company that is owned by the Ghana government. Mr. Razak is a purchasing clerk for Amanjelo.
Kristy asked Mr. Razak how far he had to go to deliver the cocoa. He said that Amanjelo is located 25 kilometers away but they send a truck to his community to pick up the cocoa. While there are seven households in his immediate community, he purchases cocoa from hundreds of households. These sellers travel anywhere from half a mile to more than a mile on foot with the cocoa on their head. Mr. Razak assured me that they break the amounts into smaller sacks for easier transport on their heads.
When Kristy asked Mr. Razak what had changed in farming in the last decade, he responded that the soil has lost many of its nutrients so he has to use “inputs” (fertilizer & pesticides) more often. Where he was applying fertilizer and spraying pesticides twice a year, he now does it monthly.
The COCOBOD offers input support once a year, but that is not adequate given the state of the soil and the age of the trees. The farmers have to purchase these additional inputs themselves. The nearest village where he can purchase fertilizer is 10 kilometers away and the nearest village where he can purchase pesticides is 25 kilometers away. Not only is he spending a lot more money on inputs, he doesn’t have his own transportation to pick up the inputs in these locations that are far away from his village.
Mr. Razak offered a solution. He said that he would like to see donors or governments subsidize inputs or create a fund that would subsidize inputs.
So I leave you with Mr. Razak’s request and a suggestion. If you visit a cocoa farm in Ghana, bring the farmer a gift of fertilizer and pesticides. If the idea of supporting the addition of pesticides to cocoa gives you pause, I leave you with a thought. While you may not wish to consume pesticides yourself, they are a critical resource for the livelihood and survival of Ghana cocoa farmers.
If you’ve enjoyed this portrait of a cocoa farmer in Ghana, I recommend reading Dr. Leissle’s cocoa farmer interview series, “I am a cocoa farmer” for Confectionery News. In her first farmer profile she illustrates the revenues, costs & reinvestment required for the interviewee and offers his estimate of how much more income would make a significant difference in his life.