“Cocoa farming is very hard work but only rewards you with poverty,” 32-year-old cocoa farmer, Uriah Nkrumah declared with vigour.
Nkrumah was explaining the reason many of Ghana’s youth are abandoning the once esteemed occupation of their forebears.
Grace to grass
History has it that Ghanaian cocoa farmers formerly commanded a lot of respect, as many earned their way into the league of the affluent in society.
According to Fairtrade, when cocoa prices were high in the 1970s, cocoa accounted for up to 50 percent of the value of a chocolate bar. But currently, farmers receive just about five percent (5%) of the value.
Aside from the personal wealth of cocoa farmers in those days, the then-young nation of Ghana benefitted immensely from cocoa cash in its capital expenditure, mainly for infrastructure.
But not any more; growers of cocoa, which is the chief ingredient in chocolate, the world’s favourite snack, have become a byword for abject poverty.
For many, cocoa farming has assumed a scornful status among occupations.
“I am clear in my mind that cocoa farming won’t be an option for my kids. I don’t them to be like me. It is obvious I am not a good example of a successful father,” said Nkrumah.
According to the Statistical Service of Ghana, in 2021 the country’s population was dominated by young people (15-35 years), who accounted for 38.2% up from 34.6% in 2000.
The youth unemployment rate averaged 7% over the last half-decade, according to the Agency.
However, the average age of the Ghanaian cocoa farmer is 55 years.
The data seems to point to a succession gap, perhaps the clearest evidence yet of the youth’s disinterest in taking up the baton.
“My peers who are in the galamsey business are making between GHS1,000 – GHS2,000 per week, and sometimes more; why would they be interested in a thankless job as cocoa farming?” the young cocoa farmer asked rhetorically.
Neglected sustainability threats
Much like the subject of remunerative pricing for cocoa, the issue of ageing farmers is seldomly mainstreamed among the threats to cocoa sustainability.
Over the last 20 years, sustainability interventions have typically focussed on addressing social and environmental concerns of cocoa buyers, chocolate manufacturers and consumers, much to the neglect of the economic drivers of industry threats.
Alternative or additional livelihood initiatives and cocoa agroforestry are two of the current trends in cocoa sustainability interventions aimed at helping farmers generate extra income to augment the paltry wage from cocoa.
Uriah Nkrumah has recently received training from the Cocoa Health and Extension Division (CHED) of Ghana Cococa Board on additional livelihood skills.
But Nkrumah, although doesn’t agree with the concept, has since ventured into snail rearing, sheep and poultry farming.
He explained that cocoa farming is hectic enough, and a farmer must rest after a hard day’s work and not jump onto another full-time work like vegetable or livestock production.
“It’s my view that Cocobod and chocolate companies may not need to invest in empowering cocoa farmers with additional livelihood skills if they committed to empowering us with remunerative prices for our cocoa,” Nkrumah maintained.
“A side business must be a matter of choice. How many chocolate executives, medical doctors or cattle farmers in Europe must rear snails or grow okra on the side to be able to make ends meet?” he quizzed.
H.O.P.E. for a brighter tomorrow
Uriah Nkrumah bore out his palm and all ten fingers to me in an apparent invitation to assess them for myself, just in case I entertained doubts like the biblical Thomas.
He felt the gesture was necessary to buttress his earlier claim that cocoa farming is really hectic endeavour.
The texture of his palm could pass for sandpaper spotted by a mixture of scars and calluses.
Nkrumah hails from Dotom in the Bekwai Municipal Area of the Ashanti Region, one of Ghana’s cocoa production hubs.
In his worn-out turquoise blue t-shirt reads the inscription – h.o.p.e.
And indeed, the young man is among the last of his generation in the Dotom community still keeping faith with cocoa production in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.
Nkrumah said he acquiesced to his father’s advice against his chosen job as a labourer in illegal artisanal mining pits.
Illegal gold mining, known in local parlance as galamsey, he noted, is currently the ’employment of choice’ in the District.
“I was involved in galamsey as a labourer many years ago. But my father disapproved of it and explained it is not a sustainable venture I could pass on to my children,” he recalled.
According to him, his father had also argued that galamsey is inimical to the environment and the health of the community and future generations. The more reason he heeded the advice.
Cocoa farming is a Ghanaian cultural heritage. According to Cocobod, the mantra – Cocoa is Ghana, and Ghana is cocoa – still holds true.
Honour Vrs Cash
Nkrumah said he deems it an honour to carry aloft the family tradition, but regrets honour alone does not pay bills.
“I have been active in cocoa farming since 2012 to date, but I have seen no progress in my life,” he said sorely.
Nkrumah reported that several of his peers who remained in the illegal gold mining business have now made it.
“At least three of my former colleagues in galamsey now own houses and vehicles, and also established boutiques in Kumasi,” he gloomed.
The Dotom youth cocoa farmer told Cocoa Post editor, Kojo Hayford, “I believe I made the right decision, only that I have nothing to show for it apart from poverty. I cannot even boast of a single-room house for my young family.”
Uriah Nkrumah is married with 4 children, but still perching in his father’s house.
He owns a 10-acre cocoa farm but said he hardly makes enough to pay off loans and fend for his family let alone save.
With no financial support or adequate incentives, Nkrumah explained that his cost of production at the end of the season completely erodes his entire income, sometimes leaving him in debt.
With a booming galamsey business at Dotom, Koniyaw, Edwinase and other communities in the Bekwai cocoa district, young people are unavailable for low-paying farm maintenance jobs.
And where available the fees are so high Nkrumah said his palm must pay the price of labour, as he singlehandedly weeds and maintains the farm.
Cataloguing other cost items, Nkrumah noted, “Today, one cutlass sells for GHS50 and I buy at least four in a year. Cocobod’s free agrochemicals aren’t enough; at times four farmers must share 1 bottle, irrespective of their farm sizes.”
He said that the prices of chemicals and fertilizer on the open market are quite exorbitant and often beyond his reach.
Unable to pay upfront, he often gets input supplies on credit with a promise to defray when he sells his harvest.
It is this arrangement that has left many cocoa farmers, like Uriah, in a debt trap leaving them languishing in irredeemable poverty.
Incentivise youth in cocoa
A study by Oxfam said most smallholder cocoa farmers survive on less than US$2 a day, with the rising cost of food making it quite difficult for them to cope.
“I suggest that the government should consider deliberately incentivising the youth who have shown interest in cocoa production to sustain this critical economic activity, if not the future doesn’t look good,” Uriah Nkrumah said.
Already, several disillusioned cocoa farmers have traded their productive cocoa farms to illegal gold miners for handsome cash settlements.
Ghana Cocoa Board has described this phenomenon as worrying and recently disclosed that about 19,000 hectares of cocoa farms were lost to galamsey in only one year.
Other farmers are voluntarily ditching cocoa as they cut down their cocoa and plant in its place either rubber or oil palm.
These bottlenecks, notwithstanding, cocoa farming remains one of the county’s largest employers, directly providing jobs for over 800,000 farming families and millions of others in the expansive cocoa industry value chain.
Cocoa accounts for a quarter of Ghana’s total annual exports worth an estimated $2 billion in forex receipts, representing about 3.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) data shows that Ghana produces around 15 percent of the world’s cocoa beans but receives only about 1.5 percent of the chocolate industry’s estimated annual worth of $130 billion.
Uriah Nkrumah assured, “I am willing to remain in cocoa production, but there should be a concerted effort by stakeholders to keep me and other young farmers in the business.”
“Pay us a better price for cocoa to set us free from debt and poverty. Other than that we may be forced in the future to opt for what will put food on the table for our children,” he feared.