Standing on the tarmac at Accra Kotoka Airport after a disorienting 15-hour, two-layover, flight from Cleveland, it was easy to confuse the thick, palpable air and verdant landscape for coastal Florida, save for the rust-red soil that bears Barry Callebaut AG’s most important input; cocoa.
The airport was nearly empty, but outside bustled with activity. Ghana’s graciousness was immediately on display as nearly a dozen kind locals offered to help with my bags and navigate me through the capital city’s ceaseless traffic. I declined and headed back into the terminal to seek out my in-country contact.
As the sun set, an international pool of journalists boarded a roof-racked tour bus as sporadically spaced street lights railed in vein against the descending darkness, throwing an orange hue on the gridlock of multi-colored cabs, motorbikes, trucks and wandering merchants with their wares balanced atop their heads.
The following morning we were up with the first light and off to Nana Korkor Daa, one of eight schools Barry Callebaut supports in the region.
We reached the school after a three-hour bus trip, exacerbated by Accra’s glut of traffic and slowed by pockmarked rural roads. Tucked well off the beaten path, by western standards, pupils at Nana Korkor Daa are entranced by the glow of computer screens.
“In most villages like this, a computer would be a very rare thing,” said Nicko Debenham, Barry Callebaut vice-president, head of sustainability, managing director of Biolands Group, and chairman of Cocoa Horizons.
The computer lab and an adjacent library were made possible by support from the company, and are part of its four-prong Forever Chocolate platform, which aims to lift 500,000 cocoa farmers out of poverty, eradicate the worst forms of child labor from its supply chain, source only sustainably grown ingredients for all of its products and make the company carbon and forest positive.
The company has set a tight deadline of 2025 to accomplish these four goals.
Touching all points of Barry Callebaut’s Forever Chocolate mission, lifting farmers out of poverty is perhaps the most important goal.
“Poverty is the cornerstone to all of our challenges,” Debenham said. “If we can’t resolve poverty, we will not be able to resolve our other issues such as child labor and deforestation.”
Just outside Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, we arrived at one of the cocoa farms.
The “plantation” had the appearance of untouched forest, save for a few paths, with green, yellow and red cocoa pods blending with the foliage and fauna of West Africa. By the time we made our way from the bus to the center of the farm most of the party were visibly dripping sweat.
A large group from the village that welcomed us appeared unaffected by the humidity, as a some started digging up cocoayams, while others collected firewood to prepare our boiled, woodlands lunch. If the Sahara desert had a culinary equivalent, it would be boiled cocoayams. With a pleasant flavor, they are extremely dry and were served with nearly every meal during our trip.
For the typical westerner, the thought of a farm conjures images of neatly organized orchards and heavy harvesting equipment. These are both luxuries not found on Ghana farms, with all labor-intensive activities done by hand.
“This is very good pruning on these cocoa trees,” Joshy Varkey, managing director at Nyonkopa Cocoa Buying Ltd. — Callebaut’s Licensed Buying Company (LBC) in Ghana — remarked to a farmer as he looked over the trees during our visit.
Proper pruning is important because of the “power structure” in trees, according to Debenham. “Bigger trees devote more energy to growing leaves and branches than pods,” he explained. While it might seem a simple factor in farming, pruning is one key to improving cocoa farmers’ yields, and in turn increasing their income.
Additionally, unpruned trees can result in cocoa pods growing beyond the reach of the farmer. Even with a Go-To Hell, the long pole with a hooked end used to harvest each pod, cocoa can still remain out of reach, leaving the farmer no choice but to let fruit rot.
In addition to growing to unreachable heights, aging trees are less productive. This factor is leading many stakeholders to devote attention to rehabbing cocoa farms. To this end, Barry Callebaut is working to distribute nearly two million seedlings during the 2017/2018 growing season.
However, with the average age of a cocoa farmer ranging from 40 to 55, many are hesitant to rehab their farms and wait the three to five years it takes new trees to bear fruit. This is compounded further by a lack of interest in farming among Ghana’s youth.
Douglas Nsoh, a merchant at an open-air market in Accra, said he chose not to follow his father into cocoa farming because of the excessive time and labor needed to run a successful farm.
“If you plant a cocoa tree, you have to go back every day to check on it to make sure it hasn’t been damaged and that it is growing properly,” Nsoh said. “After it is grown, there is a great deal of hard work the farmer has to do.”
We carefully snipped cocoa pods by hand from tree trunks, as damaging the delicate flowers and buds on surrounding branches ruins future crops. With the pods piled together, our hosts showed us how to bust them open using wooden clubs.
Once open, we scooped the pulp and cocoa beans onto banana leaves, where they remain for six days to ferment. Banana leaf fermentation is the most common method used in Ghana.
Following fermentation, farmers bring the beans back to the village to be dried out on bamboo mats for another seven days.
While it is labor intensive, as our tour group found out first hand, producing certified sustainable cocoa that meets Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizon standards offers growers two benefits: A direct cash premium and, more importantly, access to better planting materials and services that boost productivity.
Our hosts showed us how to test the moisture content. As he ran a hand over the drying cocoa we could hear the shells cracking. We scooped up beans as well to see that none stuck to our hands, a sign that they are sufficiently dried.
Although there have been some developments in mechanization for cocoa harvesting, such as pod splitters and tray drying, these methods are either not available on smallholder farms or, in the case of tray drying in Ghana, forbidden by the government.
Yet, there is one area where technology is playing a part in Ghana’s cocoa supply chain: the Katchile Project. The mobile application, inaugurated in Ivory Coast, surveys farmers, collects grower data and aggregates it, according to Haidab Farhat, Ghana information systems manager for Barry Callebaut.
“Once the phone gets a signal, it syncs automatically and that information can be accessed anywhere in the world,” Farhat told Candy & Snack TODAY.
Additionally, the Katchile program is being used to map cocoa farms to help growers identify boundaries and monitor land usage.
Mapping farms is an important component in ending deforestation as well as curbing the company’s carbon footprint, which is mainly driven up by land use changes, according to Debenham.
“The best opportunity to address this issue is to increase productivity, so they are getting more from less land,” he said, adding mapping also helps prove farming isn’t occurring on protected lands.
The sour, vinegar-esque smell of fermented cocoa permeated everything surrounding Nyonkopa Cocoa Buying’s depot.
As Barry Callebaut’s LBC in Ghana, Nyonkopa plays a critical role in quality management. This is crucial, as cocoa quality is checked first at the buying depot, again after purchase from the Ghana Cocoa Board (Cocobod) and a final time before shipment.
A “political crop,” as it is referred to on the ground in Ghana, the government tightly regulates trade of the commodity through the Cocobod. These controls include checking moisture levels and bean counts, which takes into account the number of beans in 100 grams. Lower bean counts are preferred, as it indicates a higher yield associated with larger beans. Ghana averages between 90 and 95 beans per 100 grams, according to Barry Callebaut.
As part of these quality controls, each bag coming into the depot is tagged with a unique identifying code so it can be traced back to the farmer. In addition, after a bag of cocoa is cleared at the depot it is tagged with a special metal seal to indicate it has been tested.
“If you have traceability, you will have sustainability,” Debenham noted.
Once cocoa in Ghana passes inspection, it is then sold to Cocobod, which in turn, sells it to processors such as Barry Callebaut. Cocoa that doesn’t meet standards is returned for additional treatment, such as further drying.
While the system seems convoluted, it does have benefits such as insurance of high-quality cocoa and pricing support for growers.
While its name evokes images of an Orwellian dystopia, the Ghana Free Zone appears as a typical American business park. Established in 1995 to spur economic development and provide regulation activities, the Free Zone is where Barry Callebaut processes cocoa into chocolate liquor, butter, cake and roasted nibs.
As we pulled into the park, the smell of roasted cocoa overwhelmingly wafted from the supplier’s plant, which was the first in-country facility to receive ISO 9000:2000 certification.
Barry Callebaut invested $17 million into expanding its production range this past year.
In addition to processing cocoa, the plant is partially powered by the crop, with cocoa shells used to heat the boilers. As a result, the facility operates on 64 percent renewable energy.
Demonstrating the industry’s employment power, Barry Callebaut’s Ghana operation employs 170 people directly with another 150 working daily full-time positions to handle activities such as warehousing and trucking.
In a country with unemployment nearing 50 percent, in-country processing of cocoa is gaining more focus as President Akufo-Addo has suggested keeping production local could double the nation’s earnings from the crop. Only 28 percent of Ghana’s cocoa crop is currently processed in-country.
“We can and should be able to build a Ghana with use of her own resources and their proper management as a way to engineer social and economic growth in our country,” President Akufo-Addo said at a recent Royal Africa Society-organized event in London.
The late morning sun blazed unflinchingly as we exited the Free Zone, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the light being shone on Ghana’s cocoa sector and Barry Callebaut’s lofty 2025 goals were presenting more uncertainty than reward for the supplier.
“The biggest risk is not doing anything at all,” Barry Callebaut CEO Antoine de Saint-Affrique said, addressing the journalists. “I’d much rather be working toward these goals and come up short than to be sitting on my hands.”