In Western Africa, exporting cocoa is a major business. Currently, Western African countries such as Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Cameroon are responsible for 70% of the world’s total cocoa bean production. In particular, Ghana is the second-largest global exporter of cocoa, behind Côte d’Ivoire. There has been much discussion over the sustainability of cocoa, namely its impacts on the lives of farmers who grow it, as well as on the environment itself. While chocolate is delicious and well-loved around the world, colonial origins are ingrained in the cocoa trade in Western Africa. This article will explore the colonial legacy of the chocolate industry while investigating various initiatives by government, local actors and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Ghana which are seeking to make cocoa production more beneficial for planters across the country.

A Brief History of Ghana

The Republic of Ghana is a coastal nation in Western Africa, located along the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. A stable democracy since 1992, the nation has been praised for its steady economic growth in recent years. Ghana became independent from British control in 1957, effectively becoming the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence from colonial rule. Before independence, Ghana was known by the colonial term “gold coast”, referring to the European focus on extracting gold from the region. Colonial legacies still remain, notably highlighted by the dominance of cash crops grown in Ghana. Cash crops are grown to be sold for profit and not for sustenance. Cocoa, which was introduced to Ghana in the 19th century by Portuguese colonists, is grown for profit and not consumed locally. In Ghana, the top three export commodities are oil, gold and cocoa, making cocoa an incredibly important money-making export for the coastal nation. 

Where did cocoa come from?

Cocoa trees are native to Central and South America. The trees grow fruits which contain pods filled with cocoa beans, which are dried and roasted to be used in manufacturing chocolate. The first recorded consumption of chocolate dates back to the Olmecs in Southern Mexico, who very likely passed their knowledge on to the Mayans of Central America. In Mayan culture, cocoa was enjoyed as a beverage in the household as well as for celebratory purposes. In 1528, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought cocoa from Central America to Spain, where it was consumed in monasteries and by nobility. Later on, the Portuguese began producing cocoa in Brazil at a larger scale utilizing slave labour through the transatlantic slave trade. Around the 1820’s, the Portuguese began cultivating cocoa on the Central African islands of Säo Tomé and Principe, effectively introducing cocoa to Western Africa. It was the Spanish and Portuguese colonists who were largely responsible for sparking a demand for chocolate around the world, which would be fulfilled by cocoa production in this region.

Cocoa and Colonialism

Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British began to make trade negotiations with African authorities. It was in their interest to force coastal African states to adhere to treaties so that the British could continue to trade with the region. When the Ashanti Empire – located in present-day Ghana – demonstrated interest in expanding its territory towards the south, the British occupied the Ashanti capital of Kumasi and set fire to the royal palace in 1874. Britain had effectively destroyed the West African Kingdom, imposing their own imperial rule and establishing economic structures that exist to this day.

Ever since colonists introduced cocoa to Western Africa, the product has been grown in and exported from the region. Cocoa is not native to Ghana, and is not locally consumed, but profits made from growing the product can make up to 45% of a farmer’s household income. While Western Africa supplies 70% of the world’s cocoa beans, the region manufactures only 1% of the world’s chocolate. Cocoa beans are typically exported to Europe and North America to be processed into chocolate. In essence, the growth of cocoa in Ghana can be solely attributed to the actions of colonial powers in the region.

The Problem With Cocoa Crops

Cocoa production has presented several problems for Ghanaian farmers. First, cultivating the crop is not particularly sustainable. Tropical forest is cleared for planting cocoa trees, but as they only have a lifespan of 50 years, the soil is eventually exhausted and planters must move to a new plot of land to continue growing cocoa crops. Second, growing cocoa can be a difficult process. Cocoa crops are susceptible to pest infestations, weather patterns and disease. As a result, climate change is creating many difficulties for cocoa farmers. Increasing temperatures have caused a longer dry season and higher likelihood of drought in Western Africa, which can result in poor harvest. Third, the Republic of Ghana relies heavily on the world price of cocoa. Any change in global demand for cocoa can have a large impact on a farmer’s overall income. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a decrease in demand for non-staple foods such as chocolate, resulting in cocoa planters taking a major hit.

In an effort to reduce poverty and ensure cocoa farmers are paid a living wage, the Living Income Differential (LID) was put in place by government officials in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. The LID requires chocolate manufacturers such as Nestlé to pay an additional $400USD/ton on cocoa from Ghana. The LID has certainly been met with criticism, as some experts worry there is a lack of transparency about how the money will be spent. Nevertheless, the decision to charge cocoa exporters a LID was met with approval by local farmers, as it would bring about a 21% increase in the price of cocoa. Many farmers operate on a small scale, and make an estimated $1,409USD per ton of cocoa produced. This number can be much smaller if they do not own their agricultural land. The Ghanaian government aims to ensure farmers receive a minimum of $1,820USD per ton of cocoa, significantly raising their household income.

Many big companies have attempted to avoid paying the LID premiums. Hershey, a global chocolate manufacturing giant that made $8.0 billion USD in annual revenue last year, has changed its method of purchasing cocoa to avoid paying the fee. In response, the chief executive officer of the Ghanaian cocoa regulator threatened to suspend sustainability schemes used by major chocolate corporations. This would bar businesses such as Hershey and Nestlé from marking their products as “sustainably sourced” and charging consumers more.


What are some initiatives other than the Living Income Differential which would improve the lives of cocoa farmers and benefit the Ghanaian economy in the long run?

First, some non-governmental organizations, such as The Netherlands Development Organization (SNV), are funding small-scale farmers in Ghana to increase environmental sustainability and to help improve productivity to raise income from cocoa cultivation. The organization created an app that farmers can utilize to report illegal deforestation in their area. SNV also provides ‘Farmer Field School Training’ to local planters, which teaches climate friendly cultivation, and has been found to increase cocoa output by 52%. Second, some Ghanaian business owners have taken the initiative to grow and manufacture chocolate in Ghana. ‘57 chocolate, a company named after the year the Republic of Ghana gained independence, was founded by Kimberly and Priscilla Addison. Their chocolate making business transforms the idea that Ghanaian cocoa is grown to be exported, by producing quality chocolate locally. Third, encouraging the natural progression of change and innovation in agriculture may benefit Ghanaian farmers in the long run. 

According to Michael E. Odijie, a research associate at University College London, it may be better for farmers to diversify into other crops such as rice, cashews and rubber, which require less labour input and grow in poorer soils than cocoa crops. As mentioned previously, cocoa crops are incredibly volatile and are especially sensitive to bad soil and the effects of climate change, making more hardy crops such as rubber a more viable option. 

Furthermore, Odijie found that many initiatives to make cocoa more sustainable, such as CocoaAction, are funded by multinational corporations, meaning that it is in their best interest to encourage planters to continue harvesting cocoa instead of diversifying. With this in mind, it is best to take some sustainable cocoa schemes with a grain of salt. It may be helpful to examine sustainability initiatives from a more farmer-centred approach, and less for the benefit of billion dollar chocolate companies.

Looking towards the future, there are many promising ongoing initiatives, especially bottom-up approaches such as Ghanaian chocolate manufacturing and research prioritizing local farmers, which will undoubtedly reform the cocoa sector in Ghana.

Toko Peters

Toko is from Vancouver, BC, and was born in Hamamatsu, Japan. After obtaining her B.A. in International Relations at UBC, she continued to pursue her passion and affinity for writing, politics, and world...

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