On a recent trip to Africa I was fortunate to visit a cocoa-growing community in the Asikuma Odoben District of the Central Region of Ghana. It was an incredible day that was the highlight of my three-week trip to Africa and one that will stay with me forever.
You may note that I’m using the word “cocoa” instead of “cacao”. Ghana is a former British colony and the second largest cocoa-growing country in the world after the Ivory Coast. In Ghana it’s “cocoa”, as my traveling companion and good friend, Dr. Kristy Leissle, reminded me when I used the word “cacao”.
Our journey started out in Ghana’s capital, Accra, where we were picked up by Abraham, our driver. Abraham had driven down from Kumasi, the city at the heart of Ghana’s Ashanti region, to take us to our destination for the day. Our journey would take us south west to the Central region, which, while not one of the main cocoa-growing regions in Ghana has its fair share of cocoa farms. (A note from Dr. Leissle – “today, the Western region is the cocoa center in Ghana, and more than half of the country’s crop comes from there”).
A friend who is an executive at the non-profit CARE was my connection for setting up this journey, so our day was spent with the in-country team from CARE. CARE is a non-profit organization that works around the globe to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice. They have a number of programs in Ghana with a goal of empowering women and improving food and nutrition security. Our hosts were truly spectacular, and I can’t thank them enough for the thoughtful and meaningful experience they provided.
Our introduction began with a 3.5 hour car ride with Abraham. Kristy and I peppered him with questions about CARE and their cocoa programs.
Abraham was a great representative for the organization, answering each of our questions and offering his insights. He kept referring to the project he was assigned to in Kumasi, which led me to ask him, “What’s your role on the project?”. He responded, “Driver” with a tone that said “what else would it be?”. He’d been speaking with such passion about CARE’s work and his project that I thought perhaps he had many programmatic responsibilities. It was a pleasure to meet someone so proud of the work his organization is doing.
This was my first foray into the bush, and it was not as remote as I was expecting. We drove 1.5 hours south of Accra, and then turned right at Winneba junction. One thing I learned about Ghana is that driving directions are given by junctions. When someone later asked me where the farm was, I said, “We turned right at Winneba junction,” and they knew approximately where we’d gone. We drove for another 2.0 hours, some of it over paved roads with significant potholes, and some of it over dirt roads.
I wish I had a photograph of vehicles driving around the potholes. The flow of traffic followed a pattern. If you came across a pothole, you went around it to the left and into the other side of traffic, as did your fellow motorists. Then you swerved back to the right, avoiding any other potholes. This results in driving along the road in an S-shape with cars following each other in pothole avoidance. If someone is coming from the other direction, they know that eventually you’ll snake back into your lane, so they keep heading in your direction in anticipation that you’ll move.
Eventually we came to rutted dirt roads which were more in keeping with what I expected when I heard the term “into the bush”. Lucky for us we only had to go a few miles on this rutted road, and we were traveling in the comfort of a large four wheel drive vehicle. While it was not a Toyota Landcruiser, the vehicle of choice among politicians, the wealthy, and anyone of status, it was just as comfortable and more appropriate for a non-profit organization. Thank goodness for the four-wheel drive, the excellent shocks and Abraham’s skilled driving. It was better than I expected, but it would have been difficult and certainly uncomfortable in a lesser car.
We arrived in Asarekwaa, the village where the rest of our CARE hosts awaited us. They included our host from Kumasi, Doreen, the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Abraham (not to be confused with our driver), the Project Officer, Seth, the Project Facilitator, Boat, the CARE team’s driver, and Diana, the National Service intern (Diana was fulfilling the requirement that university graduates in Ghana must do a year of service to their country). Rose Tchwenko, the Country Director, was supposed to accompany us from Accra but fell ill and was unable to join us. Her team did a fabulous job in her stead, and I had the chance to meet Rose and have an extensive discussion with her a few nights before at the launch of Kristy’s Cocoapreneur Institute.
We greeted them and learned of our plan for the day. Our first stop was to visit the village leaders. Our hosts explained that we needed to greet them, share the purpose of our visit and ask their permission to continue, including permission to take photographs. We headed a few yards to the community center, which was a covered area under the shelter of corrugated metal held up by wooden poles.
The leaders were seated, awaiting our arrival. We formed a line and shook their hands before sitting down for a conversation.
The leaders wanted to know what our purpose was in visiting their community. Kristy started by explaining her role as a researcher and her desire to learn from the community by listening to them. I echoed her comments about wanting to learn from them and explained that I sell chocolate to Americans. I told them I wanted to understand more about the hard work they do so that my customers can enjoy chocolate. I also told them my customers want to know how cocoa is farmed in Ghana.
I don’t get nervous speaking to groups very often, but I was pretty nervous at this moment. It’s one thing to speak to consumers and other chocolate industry groups, it’s another to speak to the experienced leaders of a farming community whose livelihood is dependent upon a luxury item that they rarely get to taste themselves. They work hard so that we can enjoy chocolate. Their lives are not easy and they have very little. I felt the weight of the moment and hoped that what I had to share would be of value to them. When I said it was my first time in Ghana and my first time visiting a Ghana cocoa community, they clapped. It was an unexpected moment of relief for me and one that brought tears to my eyes.
We received permission to continue our visit, and we headed off to another community on foot to visit with the first of two cocoa farmers and their families. The other community was only about 100 yards away, so it was a short walk on a dirt road to reach these additional homes.
We arrived at the first family’s home and sat down on plastic chairs that appeared to be the seats of honor while the family and the CARE team sat on wooden benches. Kristy and I began to ask questions. While I had my share of questions, Kristy had a lot of questions drawing on her many years of research and experience with the Ghana cocoa market. Our visit with this farmer’s family was scheduled for 30 minutes, but we spent over an hour in conversation. I will share what we learned from the farmer about cocoa farming in Ghana in a separate post, so stay tuned.
Before heading back to the community center the farmer asked us to follow him to his cocoa orchard so he could give us a quick demonstration of their fermentation methods. He cut a few plantain leaves from surrounding trees and laid them on the ground to use as the fermentation cover. There are plenty of plantain trees scattered about all of the cocoa orchards, not only for food, but for use in fermentation.
As you can see from this video, he began cracking open the pods, pulling out the pulp and throwing the pulp-covered cocoa seeds on the plantain leaves. Eventually he would build up enough of a heap to bundle it up in the plantain leaves and leave it to ferment in what’s known as “heap fermentation”.
One thing I learned about Ghana’s approach to fermentation is that farmers are taught to open the leaves at least once during the six days of fermentation to stir the beans with their hands. I had been under the impression that no rotation happened in heap fermentation, so it was good to hear that it does. Rotating the beans helps create an environment for even fermentation which results in better chocolate flavor. It prevents some beans from over fermenting (think smelly gym socks) and other beans from under fermenting (think raw walnut skins). It is easier to achieve even fermentation by using fermentation boxes, but boxes are very expensive. Cocoa farms in Ghana all use heap fermentation. It’s part of the standard protocol as prescribed by Ghana’s cocoa-controlling body, the Cocobod, and it’s one that’s easily achieved with items already on the farm. Kristy also reminded me that boxes work well for large quantities of wet cacao. Since fermentation is not centralized in Ghana, the quantities being fermented would be too small for effective box fermentation.
Stay tuned for Part II of my post and the rest of our adventures in Asarekwaa.