The race to stand still
Cocoa prices may go up, but the quality of life goes down. That's what structural adjustment means for cocoa farmers, as for all Ghanaians: cuts in services that put fragile incomes at risk.
HEAT and light begin to settle over Accra before six in the morning. The dog days of February are even hotter than usual. It is the kind of heat where one avoids superfluous steps... where the cotton of your shirt already sticks to your skin by eight in the morning. The TV weather map indicates heat not with the tiny suns that adorn most versions in the North - seldom free of intruding small clouds in Britain - but with flickering little flames.
I have arranged with Sam Nyako of the Cocobod to travel upcountry to the Cocoa Research Institute in Tafo. Sam proves to be an insightful guide - not at all what one would expect from someone in public relations. He combines a twinkle in the eye with a ready smile and a willingness to be candid, even if the truth is inconvenient. His commitment to both his country and the fate of its cocoa farmers is clear. I know from his nephew - through whom I made contact with him - that he was once offered a job at the United Nations Development Programme at many times his Cocobod salary. He chose to stay in Ghana.
Sam Nyako tastes the good stuff
PHOTO: RICHARD SWIFT
Accra is just waking up as we pull out of town and start the climb up the small range of hills that runs all the way east to the Togolese border. The combination of the cooler height and the breeze blowing in through the window of the four-wheel-drive provides welcome relief. As we climb we are treated to a spectacular view of the Accra plain spread out below, the shimmering Atlantic beyond. There are lines of schoolchildren in brown tunics and pants and neat yellow shirts along the road all the way to the next hilltop. They meander past Ghana's 'informal sector' which is setting itself up on the roadside to sell anything it has that anyone might conceivably want, and afford, to buy: huge yams, fou fou, soups (the Ghanaian name for stews, or indeed almost any food), toilet paper, batteries, pens, lottery tickets - you name it.
Highways all over Ghana - and most of Africa for that matter - are a giant sales opportunity. On the main route from Accra northwest to Kumasi villages specialize in particular products, one selling furniture, another pottery and one that bills itself as the 'bread capital of the world'. It teems with saleswomen who run beside the traffic sticking various baked goods through car windows. In between villages one comes across young boys dangling plump, and quite dead, rodents known as 'grasscutters'. I am assured that they are absolutely delicious.
As we drive north Sam fills me in on the history of the Ghanaian Cocobod. It has its roots in the colonial buying monopoly set up by the British at the time of the Second World War. This was in response to African complaints that they were getting ripped off by the expatriate firms whose agents monopolized the purchase of the crop. The early history of cocoa production here is marked by a series of struggles in which farmers got together to hold back the sale of their crops and force up the price.
While the declared purpose of the board was to shield farmers from speculators and price fluctuations, it never did so. For the British, and later for the independent Ghanaian Governments, cocoa proved too tempting a source of public finance. Proceeds from cocoa had to underwrite the ambitious plans of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first President, for education, health and industrial projects. So heavy export taxes and other tariffs kept producer prices low. 'We compensated for this at the Cocobod, at least partially, by a series of free services to farmers, including subsidized fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, free agricultural extension services, research and development of the best cocoa hybrids for Ghanaian conditions, free saplings, even labour to help at busy times on the farm,' Sam says. The argument was that, despite low prices, farmers were getting back some value in services.
This did not prove sufficient to sustain the cocoa economy. When the bottom dropped out of the cocoa market in the late 1970s, prices tumbled from almost $4,800 a ton to less than a third of that. With farmers getting less than 40 per cent of the world price from the Cocobod, this was a significant blow. Many farmers stopped producing cocoa altogether or switched to food crops, like maize or cassava, that fetched more reliable prices.
The situation worsened with the Sahelian drought that hit West Africa in the early 1980s. By 1983 conditions were so dry that a series of disastrous bush fires swept across Ghana's cocoa-growing country. Production plummeted. In 1972 Ghana produced nearly a third of the world's cocoa. A decade later this had fallen to just 12 per cent. With Ghana, like most of sub-Saharan Africa, staggering under a huge debt burden, the collapse of cocoa left the country teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
It was at this point that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund stepped in with a structural-adjustment package to 'rescue' the country's economy. If you read all the official literature you will conclude that the result is a tremendous success. For cocoa this has meant a downsized Cocobod and significantly higher prices for farmers. Sounds like good stuff.
As we finally pull through the gates of the Cocoa Research Institute in Tafo I begin to get an idea of the effort that has been made to sustain vital cocoa yields. The station and its extensive compound date from colonial times with a wide range of laboratories, experimental farms, nurseries and so many PhDs that Sam jokingly refers to them as 'doctors without nurses'.
Propped up by cocoa - the economic well-being
of Ghanaians packed up and ready to go.
PHOTO: RICHARD SWIFT
The Cocoa Research Institute concentrates on basic plant science, with special attention to cocoa as a small-farmer crop. It has pioneered inter-cropping, allowing small farmers to grow food crops in the three-to-five years it takes cocoa trees to produce their first pods. At Tafo they have developed a hybrid cocoa, marrying the traditional type to an Amazonian variety from Brazil with an eye to taste, bean count, yield per acre, disease resistance and quickness to maturity. The old type yields only one crop after five years, whereas the new variety yields two crops after just three years - a vital difference for small farmers. The Institute feels their hybrid is the most productive for West African conditions.
We move from building to building, meeting with the plant people, the bug people, the disease people, the cocoa byproducts division and finally the economist. It quickly becomes clear that, while the Institute has been vital in sustaining cocoa as a small-farmer crop, there is a constant tension between its expensive, scientific, agrochemical approach and what the farmers can afford to do in the field.
We come across Dr Beatrice Padi, the head entomologist, struggling with her computer. She is obviously busy and a bit reticent. She tries to find us someone else to talk about the problems of mirids and mealybugs. But when I start asking her questions she is overtaken by her own enthusiasm for her work. After a brief survey of the threats from the bug world, and what can be done to combat them, we get into the question of the costs and dangers of pesticides. She shakes her head and declares: 'Most cocoa farmers resist spraying their crop the three times recommended by the Institute. They may do it once, or not at all.'
We get a similar story from the plant-disease department, although the amounts of fungicides and their cost are significantly less than with pesticides. The farmers, when they can, use 'cultural practices' to control threats to their cocoa. For example, while official advice calls for the use of an expensive imported dye to kill alien trees, farmers have been getting rid of unwanted trees by stripping off the sapling's bark and applying palm wine for a long time.
It is not until we get to talk to the economist, Mr Asanti, that all these pieces start to fall into place. We then begin to see the debit side of the structural-adjustment ledger. While the Cocobod has estimated that agro-chemicals are economically viable, Asanti concedes that the farmers have a strong case when they claim they can't afford them. He pulls out a report which shows a two-year increase in cocoa prices of 107 per cent outstripped by an increase in the price of insecticides of 657 per cent, fungicides of 250 per cent and spraying machines of 400 per cent. He points to the IMF/World Bank removal of subsidies and insistence on a crippling devaluation of the cedi as factors that have pushed these chemicals out of the price range of most farmers.
A shop near Kumasi - this pervasive type
of Ghanaian street poetry (often religious)
points out the precariousness of life.
PHOTO: RICHARD SWIFT
It is about an hour's drive to the Cocobod's Agricultural College at Bunso. Here the mood is decidedly more downbeat. Structural-adjustment reforms have bitten deep into the agricultural extension service. Overall, the Cocobod has dropped from some 100,000 employees to less than 10,000. In areas like extension the effects have been dramatic. Workloads have doubled and Alfred Nortley, one of the College's administrators, reports that 'morale is low. It is almost impossible to do your job, and the farmers are starting to complain quite bitterly.' The College is not currently training extension workers - there are simply no jobs. This may also explain the frustration back at the Institute. It is the extension workers who are charged with transferring the Institute's agronomy on to the farmers.
No-one would seriously argue there was no fat in the Cocobod and cuts weren't needed. It had become the 'political backyard' of the government of the day. Many of its workers and functions were of marginal utility and at the cost of a better price to cocoa farmers. Today the price farmers get has risen to 50 per cent of the international price, with the Board committed to go even higher, to 65 per cent or 70 per cent. But structural adjustment is turning out to be a blunt instrument, cutting away many of the beneficial services the Cocobod did provide for small farmers. Put this together with the other effects of structural adjustment and it is by no means clear that cocoa farmers, supposedly one of the main beneficiaries of the IMF/World Bank reform package, are much better off. Not only are inputs more expensive, but the cost of living has skyrocketed. In all my time in Ghana I never heard anyone say anything positive about the impact of structural adjustment.
As we head back towards Accra my conversation with Sam shifts to other changes in the farmers' lives. The user fees in education and health have been particularly difficult. There are lots of stories about those who simply can't afford schooling. Back in Camp Number One Asamoa had listed out the charges that even the parents of elementary school-children must bear: fees for desks, fees for uniforms, fees for stationery, fees for textbooks, fees for any extras at all. Sending your kids to high school is stretching even middle-class incomes. For most, higher education is inconceivable. Sam is particularly aware of the effects on health costs. He recounts stories of people turned away from hospitals in the middle of the night, forced to carry desperately sick family members back home because they lacked the money or the banks were closed. Sam shakes his head and stares out of the window. The words come slowly. 'Ghana never used to be like this,' he says.
To help shore up public revenues and meet Ghana's obligations to international creditors, as well as cover the high cost of imports resulting from the devalued cedi, the IMF/World Bank package called for a value-added tax (VAT) to replace all other sales taxes. The idea was to shift some of the tax burden away from cocoa and encourage production. But when the Government tried to bring in the tax at 17 per cent even the usually peaceful Ghanaians took to the streets in protest. They cried 'kume preko' ('kill me quickly' - as opposed to the lingering death of structural adjustment) and the police obliged, gunning down several demonstrators. The outcry was so great that the Government was forced to back down. Today they are back at it, reintroducing VAT but more slowly and at a
One expression of Ghana's vibrant popular culture can be found in the sayings, often religious, that adorn shops, trucks and buses. My personal favourite is 'Life is not a race.' Yet that is exactly what the opening of Ghana to global competition, the ultimate goal of structural adjustment, is making of life - a race where you have to run ever harder just to keep up, and God help you if you stumble, because nobody else will. Sam Nyako sometimes despairs: 'If you want to lead an honest life, you must have two or even three jobs.' But he points to the eternal optimism of Ghanaians, particularly the cocoa farmers, as a source of continuing strength. As we enter Accra's streets, clogged with the late-afternoon rush-hour, Sam breaks the momentary silence: 'Every Ghanaian believes that tomorrow will be better than today.'
Or what lies behind the impulse to eat
Chocolate has long been identified with romance and sensuality. Yet the connections between sex and chocolate - unless, perhaps, it is liberally spread over various parts of the body - are anything but obvious. It is true that, way back in the times of the Maya of Central America, chocolate was connected to fertility. And in the times when it was a luxury, associated with first the Spanish and then other European courts, it was popular with the ladies of the court particularly - possibly as a substitute for other, more potent and less ladylike, drugs - and was thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. However, just as chocolate has never been proved to have the detrimental effects attributed to it, so many of its positive qualities, aside from the obvious fine taste of good dark chocolate, have remained in the realm of conjecture. Recent science has, however, vindicated at least some of the pharmacological claims, indicating that chocolate may be the ideal soft drug, provoking a sense of euphoria and well-being similar to marijuana, with very few side-effects. Both benefit and liability can of course be altered, depending on what other ingredients, like sugar, hydrogenated oils or flavourings, are added.
However, the rich imagery associated with the history of chocolate has provided a virtual playground for the advertising industry. And, after all, it is advertising that is one of the main costs you are paying for when you buy a bar or box of chocolates. Much more of your money will end up in the hands of television stations, lifestyle magazines and those who create advertising 'concepts' to re-enforce the different brand names, than will ever make it back into the pockets of the world's cocoa farmers. In fact one 'with-it' firm has gone so far as to offer not only a quarter pound replica of a '5 1/ 4 inch floppy disk' but an entire chocolate computer work-station 'comprised of chocolate terminal, chocolate keyboard, chocolate chip and chocolate byte' Their slogan; 'boots up in your mouth, not in your disk drive'. With 70 per cent of chocolate purchased on impulse and consumption concentrated around the holidays like Christmas, Easter, Halloween and St Valentine's Day the push to identify a gift of chocolate with special love for a mate or a child is obvious. Women are especially targeted in chocolate advertising and the consumption or denial of chocolate is associated with all kinds of eating disorders such as binge-eating, bulimia and anorexia.
Unlike, say, car or even painkiller ads, very little of the advertising for chocolate is directly tied to claims about the superiority of one particular brand over another, or even about the intrinsic qualities of taste or actual ingredients. Instead, chocolate advertising quickly enters the world of fantasy. Love, sensuality, romance, luxury, health, energy are all yours once you've plunked down a few measly coins. Not too bad in a world where such things are widely sought-after. Indeed, who can bother with issues like cocoa content - what really makes chocolate, after all - additives, pesticide residues, sugar content, or a fair price for Third World farmers when your fundamental happiness is at stake?