The cocoa chain
The cocoa chain starts under Asamoah's trees high in the hills of Western Ghana.
Richard Swift accompanies Asamoah on the bittersweet journey from cocoa to chocolate.
|ALL PHOTOS: SARA ERRINGTON|
PRISCILLA and Clifford have never tasted chocolate in their lives. Not that odd really. After all, how many children in the poor South know the same pleasures and toys that cram so much of childhood in the affluent North? The odd part of it is that Priscilla and Clifford live in a village in the Ashante region of Ghana, West Africa, which would probably not exist at all were it not for chocolate. Camp Number One, as their village is called, owes its rather barracks-like name to a lumber camp run here in the 1950s by a British firm, Christian Brothers. Today most of the villagers' income depends upon the sale of their cocoa crops. Without cocoa there would be no money for necessities that cannot be made or grown locally, or for school fees. If they are lucky, the villagers have enough left over to pay for emergencies, a family crisis, a doctor's bill or a funeral - a significant and expensive event in Ghana. Chocolate is just not on the menu.
I am staying with Priscilla and Clifford's grandfather, Koto Asamoah Serebour. The idea is to spend time in Ghana with Asamoah, a cocoa farmer, and then accompany him back to Britain along the trail the cocoa bean follows to become chocolate. The trip should reveal how the cocoa, so vital to farmers like Asamoah (and all Ghanaians), falls prey to everyone from big chocolate companies to high-stakes speculators. We'll find out too how cocoa has become a pawn in a structural-adjustment game designed in Washington but played out in Ghana's towns and villages.
Priscilla tastes chocolate for the first time,
and finds it a very serious matter indeed.
Sara Errington, the photographer who was with me for part of my stay in Camp Number One, has brought some prize-winning, Ghanaian-produced Golden Tree chocolate. Why not see if the kids like it? The response is mixed and follows advertising folk wisdom about chocolate and gender stereotypes. Clifford, aged three-and-a-half, takes a few tentative nibbles before his look of scepticism is replaced with one bordering on disgust. Priscilla, who is seven, works on the bar of 'Kingsbite' milk chocolate slowly and methodically, but with definite enthusiasm. She won't crack a smile for the camera - for her, this chocolate business is a serious matter. Perhaps she realizes that when the two Kwesi Bromi ('White people' in the Twi language) leave the supply of chocolate is likely to go with them.
Asamoah proves a careful guide for me through the world of cocoa farming, and much else Ghanaian and Ashante as well. I can still feel his hand prodding me in the back as we drive along, to make sure I understand that the area we are passing, although once cocoa-rich, has been destroyed by brush fires. Or, a little later on and another poke: 'Some farmers here, in desperation over low prices, sold the wood from their land and now the whole area is becoming savannah.' Or, again with a gap-toothed grin: 'This is where we stop to eat fu fu' (a casssava-based Ghanaian delicacy).
Asamoah is quite a small man in his mid-fifties with the most wonderful long fingers. He is serious but with a warmth and a good sense of humour about the absurdity that inevitably colours life. He weighs issues of principle carefully and takes moral judgement seriously. He is well-informed and listens to the BBC World Service several times a day. When he reads he puts on a pair of spectacles, the arms of which are skewed at an amazing angle, and he looks very studious. One can well imagine him as the schoolteacher he was for 31 years. Asamoah is surprisingly formal and likes the familiarity of religious ritual, be it in the local Catholic Church, where he is a devout member, or in the secular rituals that shape life in Camp Number One. He uses an English that sounds very old-fashioned to my ears but is at the same time wonderfully descriptive. A machete is a cutlass. A slingshot for driving birds out of the cocoa trees is a catapult. A fun- loving person is 'very jovial'. When we walk 'we must follow this course'. And when Asamoah explains what it is like keeping 45-odd school kids in line he claims that 'you must be very stern or they will overtake you'.
His eagerness for our project helped keep me going at times when the whole enterprise seemed problematic. I can still see the look of delight on his face when we finally got word that the British High Commission in Accra had agreed to grant him a visitor's visa. He rubbed his hands together with glee and exclaimed: 'The poor cocoa farmer gets to go to London!' This is the first time he has ever really been outside of Ghana.
One thing that Asamoah takes very seriously is his cocoa farming. Last year he retired from his job teaching to devote himself to his eight-acre farm full-time. He is disdainful of the increasing number of Ghanaian farmers, just landowners really, who never work on their own farms but leave it up to caretakers - often Muslims from the poor north of the country. He and his wife Kate are very much partners in their farm. It is about two miles from Camp Number One, off a dirt track that is impassable for vehicles in the rainy season and runs from the main road that leads to the local market centre of Sankari.
We leave the dirt track and head off on a path that winds its way through the cocoa trees, moving gently up a hill. Kate moves on ahead to start gathering some of the food crops that the farm also yields. Asamoah pauses to show us how the pods are developing. He makes cooing and clucking noises as he inspects the greenish-to-yellowish pods - depending on their ripeness - that sprout from the tree trunks. These pods are generally the size of large melons. He points out examples of the detested Black Pod disease that destroys up to 40 per cent of the Ghanaian crop every year. Asamoah uses a fungicide to protect his crop, but is much more circumspect when it comes to more expensive pesticides and fertilizers. Every once in a while he pauses to indicate where 'Old Mary's' land ends and 'Young Mary's' land begins. We can see no obvious markers, but he assures us that not only are they there but that everyone in the village knows what belongs to whom, down to the smallest sapling.
Asamoah checks the pods
A cocoa farm is nothing like I imagined tropical agriculture. My notions probably came from watching old movies of slaves working in the intense heat of cotton fields, or the backbreaking work of harvesting groundnuts. By contrast, a cocoa farm is a wonderfully cool and restful place. The trees, which at maturity spread a leafy canopy, grow to 4 1/ 2 or 5 metres high. The canopy provides almost unbroken shade, occasional sun filtering in so the pods can grow. A delicious coolness and quiet pervades. The ground is covered with the fallen broad leaves, laying a carpet that rustles satisfactorily as one walks.
The pods are often low enough to be picked by hand or, to be more precise, with a wave of Asamoah's cutlass. The canopy eliminates the backbreaking work of weeding, as nothing grows in the shade of the trees. The leaves covering the ground decay to provide fertilizer and a breeding ground for the tiny insects that help pollinate the cocoa flowers. As I stand here gazing up out of the forest to the far hills, home to many other cocoa farms, it seems an almost perfect ecosystem as well as a cool refuge from the midday heat.
But cocoa farms are not places for the idle contemplation of nature. Asamoah and Kate, with the help of their young caretaker, Mamudu, prepare to show us the whole process of harvesting. First we go to pick some of the riper pods. There are two harvest seasons for most West African cocoa. The pods we are currently picking belong to the early part of the second crop - the first and most significant one is picked in the November/December period. Some of the higher pods must be cut with the use of a long cutting tool wielded very adroitly by Mamudu. When the ripe pods are finally gathered in a large wicker basket they are heaped in front of the caretaker's hut.
Splitting the pods to get at the gooey mess.
Then Kate, Asamoah and Mamudu begin the slow and careful work of splitting open the pods and scraping out the slimy white mucous-like collection of damp beans. These are heaped onto plantain leaves and then painstakingly wrapped, to be left out in the heat of the West African sun for fermentation to take place.
Fermentation requires anything from five to seven days. The beans then begin to look like something that might yield up cocoa. They are taken out of the leaves to a spindly-looking drying structure made of sticks, then spread across the bamboo-slated top and left to dry in the sun. This process takes from five to ten days and is periodically interrupted by the farmer, who meticulously turns the beans over by hand or with a short-handled rake. The purpose of this is twofold: to make sure each bean gets its due quota of sun, and to pick out beans that are no good, usually black rather than rich-brown, or too scrawny, thereby lowering the price per bag.
It is the care that West African - particularly Ghanaian - farmers take with fermentation and drying that has given their cocoa its reputation as the world's best, much superior to the cocoa grown on huge plantations in places like Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. There the individual care and variety in the type of beans are sacrificed on the altar of monocultural uniformity. There is little chance that a low-paid and harassed plantation worker will take the kind of pride Asamoah obviously does in the quality of his produce. It is for this reason that Ghanaian cocoa fetches a premium price and is so valued among makers of quality chocolate. However, many of the major chocolate manufacturers are willing to reduce the cocoa content in their product and replace cocoa butter with a cheaper fat substitute. So it is an open question whether quality is the winning card in global cocoa production.
But Kate and Asamoah get more than cocoa off their land. With the beans safely wrapped in their plantain coverings, we move off to see what we can find for our food that night. Kate points to an unimpressive-looking plant on the ground and sets to digging. She soon comes up with a handsome collection of yams and she harvests the leaves of the plant as well. They make an excellent vegetable, particularly delicious when cooked up by Kate's daughter, Florence, using palm oil in the preparation. Then Mamudu points to a bunch of plantains dangling in the centre of a tree. These are quickly dispatched with the help of the long cutting tool and added to the growing cornucopia in Kate's basket. The farm also yields up cassava and deliciously sweet small bananas. Asamoah estimates that, with the addition of the chickens kept on the farm and the goats from the compound down in Camp, his family provides 65 per cent of its own food. He says this is common for the rest of the villagers as well. He reels off the short list of what people still have to buy - cooking oil, sugar, salt, bread, dried fish and sometimes meat.
One of the keys to the success of small farmers growing cocoa is the use of inter-cropping with food crops. Ghana's Cocoa Research Institute in Tafo has advised farmers on the best ways to do this for decades. It has been, in this area at least, an exemplary use of indigenous science to aid development.
The main competition to West African cocoa these days comes from the giant plantations of Latin America, mostly Brazil and then from Southeast Asia. The average cocoa farm in Ghana, however, is still just two acres. There is a growing recognition that small farmers like Asamoah not only provide better quality but are more efficient producers as well. One of their advantages lies in the use of the land to provide for the rest of a family's nutritional needs. They are less dependent on the cash economy for basic survival.
Letting fly at pesky birds and squirrels:
caretakers like Mamudu are vital
in caring for Ghana's cocoa crop.
Mamudu and his wife and two daughters live on the farm full-time, watching over the cocoa from dawn to dusk. I am puzzled as to the exact relationships involved in the caretaker system. Asamoah explains to me that Mamudu gets a third of the income from the crop and that this is the general rule of thumb throughout the cocoa-growing regions. Sometimes a farmer shares the crop 50/50, but only when the caretaker has helped prepare the farm, planting the shoots which become cocoa trees and building the necessary accommodation. Are caretakers exploited, I wonder? In some ways they share the disadvantageous position of anyone without land or capital and with only their labour to sell. But they are certainly better off than someone working for slave wages on a large plantation - for they get to share both the fruits of their labour and the food crops from the farm.
But there are definite problems. For example, neither of Mamudu's two young daughters, Martha and Samata, makes the 3km trek every morning to the school at Camp. Their mother, Zinabu, says it is just too far and they are too little. But one suspects the cost of schooling is also a factor. On the other hand, living up on the farm seems to me quite desirable when compared to the more crowded and dusty village on the road below. It is peaceful and cool and some farmers - such as Asamoah's neighbour, the next farm over - have chosen to live up here. When we visit the neighbour and sit in the shade of his cocoa trees, sipping the milk out of freshly cut coconuts, the choice seems eminently sensible.
It is time to pack up and head back to the village below. I remark to Asamoah about his handsome pair of bright- yellow rubber boots - obviously part of his regular farmers gear. He explains: 'I always wear these when I come up to the farm because of the black cobras and the scorpions and poisonous spiders that are so plentiful in the bush.' I look down at my own flimsy sandals and the trip back down to the road takes on a whole new drama.
Cocoa farming is serious business in Ghana. While there are some 500,000 to 600,000 farmers, there are also at least a million caretakers. In a country of roughly 19 million inhabitants this makes cocoa by far the biggest contributor to people's livelihoods. Cocoa is both social security for old age and the only inheritance many families will ever see. However, a large proportion of Ghana's cocoa farmers are in their sixties or seventies. It is hard to get young people to take up farming and stay in the village. A situation is evolving where it is the caretakers who do the actual farming while the owners are absentee city-dwellers.
I chat to Asamoah about the future of the farm of which he is so justly proud. Now in his mid-fifties, he has many good years left. But of his eight children only two still live in Camp - the rest have all moved to the Ashante capital, Kumasi. He holds out hope that his son, Joseph, who runs a carpentry business in the village, will take up the farm at some point. But this does not seem to me a sure thing. Joseph is very involved with his carpentry shop just outside the Serebour's family compound. So Asamoah's prospects mirror those of many older Ghanaian cocoa farmers. But he is an optimist by nature and proud of his Ashante roots: 'Once we were warriors and triumphed over our enemies. Now we are farmers and fight the bush.' He grins as Camp Number One comes into view.