Ghana has been growing cocoa for almost a century and a half and was once the world’s leading supplier of the key chocolate ingredient until losing that spot in 1977.
The West African nation boasts of a rich heritage in cocoa production. The quality of her produce is second to none, attesting to the reason it commands the highest premium price on the international market.
Cocoa is Ghana’s leading export crop earning an average of $2billion annually in foreign exchange while contributing about 3% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
It accounts for two-thirds of cocoa farmers’ income and also supports the livelihood of about 4 million farming households, according to the Ghana Statistical Service.
One of these households is Dela Kuekey Austine’s family who has been into cocoa production at Okumanin, a village in the Eastern Region of Ghana, for three generations since the 1920s.
Dela, a biochemist and food scientist, belongs to the third generation of this family of cocoa farmers. Dela’s interest in the cocoa industry was highly influenced by her parents, particularly her late father, Emmanuel Rockland Kuekey, a former soldier with the Ghana Armed Forces.
After retirement from a diplomatic mission abroad, Emmanuel settled into farming grains and later cocoa, the mainstay of his wife’s family.
The family patriarch, Opanyin Kwaku Asare, passed down the estate of about 100 acres of cocoa plantation.
Dela is now a little more into the family trade, having chosen a profession that enables her to add value to cocoa beans in keeping with her father’s desires.
“His exact words to me while in the university before he passed away in 2006 was ‘my daughter, Ghana is an agro-economy so focus your studies on how to come and add value to Ghana’s agricultural produce,‘” she recalled.
She studied biochemistry at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi.
“So that was what ignited the passion and shaped my vision. This precedence backed by my industrious nature acquired from my mother, Mrs Felicia Asantewa Kuekey catapulted me on this path and directed my steps to enter the cocoa processing industry,” said Dela.
With the vision clearly in focus, Dela climbed a notch up by acquiring an MPhil. in Food Science from the University of Ghana in 2012.
On the back of several career development short courses, Dela in 2015 jumped at a scholarship opportunity to train at Belgium’s University of Ghent, famed for producing cocoa processing and chocolate manufacturing professionals.
But aside from graduating as a world-class chocolatier, Dela made a key observation during her studies abroad.
“The experience I have gained over a decade in industry amidst a couple of travels outside of Ghana opened my eye to a gap we have in our country, which is the experiential aspect of cocoa and chocolate. In Belgium, the Americas and some parts of Asia you would go and you have a direct experience with a cocoa farmer or an artisan chocolatier and they would allow you to experience cocoa in its native form and how cocoa is converted into wonderful delightful confections,” noted Dela.
Dela distinguished herself in her 13-year-long career in the public sector, leading the development of several innovative products, among them West Africa’s first sugar-free chocolate, GoldenTree Aspire.
She moved on to the private sector as one of Ghana’s first small scale chocolate makers and cocoa value addition artisans.
Dela’s startup, Delfi Ventures, makes the De’Laugh brand of handmade craft chocolate products in several exciting varieties to a tall list of clientele and also specialises in customising orders for weddings, christening, birthdays, corporate and special events.
More than spoiling your taste buds with delectable premium quality Ghana chocolates and confections Delfi Ventures is heavy on knowledge sharing, regularly hosting chocolate masterclasses for novices and professional chefs.
“My motivation is to help grow and develop my country through knowledge and skills transfer to mostly the youth especially women, along the cocoa value chain,” intimated Dela, technical director of Delfi Ventures.
As usual, a series of training programmes lined her business calendar for 2020 but the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID19) and the subsequent lockdown interrupted planned activities.
Like many businesses, Delfi Ventures saw orders cancelled as clients diverted funds into storing up staples during the lockdown.
However, Dela looks back and says happily, that period wasn’t all gloomy for her and co-founders of Delfi Ventures, Felicia, her mother and Vivien Attipoe, her sister-in-law.
“The COVID19 lockdown gave us the opportunity to repurpose our facility into my dream project, the Delfi Ventures Cocoa Museum and Chocolate Factory,” Dela said beaming with satisfaction.
The centre, arguably Ghana’s first Cocoa Museum and Chocolate factory, offers visitors one-stop cocoa and chocolate experiential tours.
“We take our patrons through the various stages of cocoa processing from the farm stage all the way to the factory and finally you are presented with delightful confections of chocolate made by your own hands,” she added.
The Delfi Cocoa Museum and Chocolate Factory has been open to the general public since October 2020, admitting smaller groups of visitors who are required to make prior appointments in line with COVID19 protocols.
Among recent visits to the centre located at Sakaman, a suburb of Ghana’s capital, Accra, has been that by Third Grade learners from The McCarthy Hill School as part of their unit of enquiry on chocolate.
“Our children had a great time. We at The McCarthy Hill School believe in giving children hands-on experience as they learn. We are happy that they have the opportunity to link what they have learnt in the classroom to what they have observed on the field,” said Lydia Sarfo Anno, the school’s proprietress.
Dela Kuekey Austine hopes to create many such impactful experiences for patrons of the facility, as she sets out to empower the younger generation.
She is optimistic their innovation will help many young people in the country to learn and appreciate what great heritage Ghana has in cocoa and perhaps spark the urge to tap into wealth creation opportunities in the $130 billion per annum global industry.