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Chocolate Is a Bittersweet Way of Life in Ghana

Ghanaian woman cracks cacao pods to prepare beans.

This should be a prosperous time for Justice Obini, a cocoa farmer in West Africa. With appetite for chocolate at an all-time high – the global demand has risen 13 percent in five years – his cocoa beans are sought after. Yet Obini struggles daily to take care of his farm -- and his family of ten.

“I do everything on my own,” Obini says, which means waking up before dawn every morning to weed his fields and spray them with fertilizer. He spends hours pulling cocoa pods from trees and cracking them open. When he can afford it, Obini will hire occasional seasonal help, but most of the time he tends to his 14 acre farm in the village of Burko, 120 miles northwest of Accra, Ghana’s capital city, alone. Several of his children have moved away and others are too young to assist him on the farm.

Obini’s days often stretch from dawn to late afternoon. Harvest time in Ghana begins in September and lasts through March. No heavy machinery is used. Farmers crack open cocoa pods and get the beans ready for harvest by hand. Obini produces nearly 16 bags of cocoa beans in a year, earning him around 1,100 dollars total, or the equivalent of three dollars a day. A wage that in Ghana would place him in the lower-middle class. According to the non-profit Oxfam America, cocoa farmers around the world on average typically make even less – about three percent of the price of a chocolate bar. Obini says there’s not much left after what he pays for his kids’ school, so he sells vegetables along with home-brewed alcohol to supplement his income during the low production season.

How Ghana Harvests Cocoa Beans for Global Production 1:06

In a country of 25 million people, the government of Ghana estimates some 800,000 families in the country are living in part by cocoa farming. West Africa produces 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans and in Ghana the beans are the top agricultural exporter.

The growing middle class in China, Brazil and India are creating the demand for the beans.

“Cocoa is a commodity,” explained Elan Emanuel, senior cocoa manager at Fair Trade USA. “From bean to bar there are many supply chain actors. There are many involved in the processing and all of them need to make some sort of money to keep their business viable. Cocoa farmers in West Africa, they are the least empowered of any of those actors.”

The Ghanaian government sets the price for how much farmers get paid. Currently, farmers receive around $45 for a bag of beans weighing about 140 pounds.

Samuel Torbi, 38, has been farming for 16 years. He started farming after graduating from high school, because he couldn’t afford college. Torbi used what money he had to purchase two acres of land. He grew vegetables in addition to cocoa and saved up his farming profits. Torbi was able to slowly expand his farm and now owns more than 30 acres of land.

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Torbi is among the more successful farmers in the region, but he says farmers are powerless when it comes to impacting the price they receive for beans.

“We are the school dropouts,” said Torbi. “The manufacturers, the consumers – they control the price of our cocoa. The economy decides. So we depend on them.”

After the increasing reports of aging cocoa farms and research about the growing income disparity amongst farmers, 12 global chocolate companies have joined the World Cocoa Foundation’s “CocoaAction” sustainability strategy. Companies including The Hershey Company, Nestle, and Mars Incorporated have signed an agreement to accelerate actions to make cocoa farming sustainable in West Africa. The plan will benefit 100,000 farmers in Ghana and 200,000 farmers in Cote D’Ivoire.

By 2020, the CocoaAction plan will create educational opportunities in cocoa communities and it will restructure past training programs to teach farmers sustainable farming methods that will increase their productivity.

But will it be soon enough?

Justice Obini, 52, on his cocoa farm in the village of Burko, 120 miles northwest of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.

The current age of the cocoa farmer is 60, and one of Ghana’s major challenges is encouraging the next generation to carry on the legacy of producing premium beans.

Only one of Obini’s ten kids wants to work on his cocoa farm.

“Doing this work takes a lot of money, so it’s difficult to do so the children don't want to do it,” said Obini.

Young people in Ghana – like millennials around the world -- are attracted to an urban lifestyle.

Ransford Hughes, 20, is a recent high school graduate who moved from a quiet village to the bustling city of Accra, where he waits tables at a hotel. For him, cocoa farming is an unrealistic career option.

"I can't leave the city and [move] to [a] village with no drinking water, poor roads, no hospitals, and poor schools,” said Hughes. “There's no way I'll do that."

Some see certification – where farmers are awarded a premium in addition to the price they receive per bag when they work with certified chocolate companies-- as a model that will allow farmers to earn more money. The cocoa co-operatives are then required to come together and vote on how best to use the additional money to benefit their communities.

“I absolutely think certification is a viable solution,” said Elan Emanuel, senior cocoa manager at Fair Trade USA. “It allows businesses to engage; it funnels more money to the bottom of the supply chain and allows a way for consumers to get close to the farmers that are growing their product.”

Kuapa Kokoo was the first certified cocoa co-operative in Ghana. The group works directly with Divine Chocolate, a UK-based chocolate company. Through certification, the farmers receive a new machete and an extra bonus per sack of cocoa – helping them earn more money than farmers that are not certified.

Kuapa Kokoo has used some of the premiums to invest in additional training programs for women. The farmers learn soap and batik making, as well as how to tie-dye cloths to sell during the low cocoa production season to generate additional income.

Still others believe the direct-trade model – where the chocolate maker pays the producer for their cocoa beans without going through a third party certifier – is the best way to get more money back to the farmer.

How Ghana's Kuapa Farmers Turn Tie-Dye Into Unique Cloths 0:53

Justice Obini hopes his farm will one day be selected for certification. In the meantime, he says he will be farming for several years because his land has not started to age. Obini continues to tend to his farm so that he is able to provide for his family.

“I'm struggling for my children,” said Obini. “I'm doing this so I can leave something for them when I die and they can also take care of their children with it.”

Cocoa farmer Justice Obini's family and friends in Burko, Ghana.

This project was supported by the International Center for Journalists.