We are, we are told, on the verge of an impending ‘chocopocalypse’. But just how tough are the climate challenges facing the world’s cocoa farmers? Cass Mason visited farmers in Ghana who are part of Mondelez’s Cocoa Life programme to see how the chocolate lover might be saved.

“The woman can earn all of the money and buy herself a gun, but only her husband can use it.”

Within days of being in Accra, Ghana’s capital, I’d begun to hear stories of how things ‘used to be’ in gender relations, and how a plan to put women front-and-centre of a programme giving cocoa farmers resources and training would help strengthen an industry already a cornerstone of life in Ghana.

A US$400 million programme called Cocoa Life, launched by Cadbury parent company (and confectionery and snack giant) Mondelez in 2012, is working to ‘empower’ 200,000 cocoa farmers and reach one million community members in six key cocoa growing areas. Ghana is the biggest player, having been the site of the original Cadbury Cocoa Partnership in Ghana in 2008. Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia are the next two with the most involvement, followed by three smaller projects in India, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

This may all seem fairly removed from day-to-day life in New Zealand, but it’s more relevant than you might think. The vast majority of the beans that go into the Cadbury chocolate we’re familiar with come from Ghana – they always have – making its flavour very distinctive from anywhere else.

There’s a lot more involved in the flavours we take for granted – beans from each country taste completely different, the way they’re dried and the material used to make the fire all play a huge part in how each chocolate tastes.

The cocoa pods are harvested for the beans inside, which must then be dried and processed. Photo: Kwabena Agyeman

Mondelez’s head of external affairs, Jake Hatton, explains the significance of the region:

“Kiwi consumers have an expectation of what our chocolate will taste like whenever they buy it, and a significant part of this can be attributed to the taste of the cocoa we use. Cocoa from Ghana makes up more than two thirds of the cocoa mass in our Cadbury Dairy Milk blocks, and while we have looked at variations with more cocoa from other origins, consumers clearly prefer the existing blend. If we change the amount of cocoa from Ghana in the recipe, we find consumers notice the difference and don’t like it as much because it’s not delivering that taste they expect.”

The concept of an oncoming ‘chocopocalypse’ – a media favourite – has been making way for headlines akin to ‘The world is running out of chocolate’. 

The term ‘chocopocalypse’ arose out of a 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration review which predicted rising temperatures from climate change were threatening to shrink the strip of rainforests around the equator where cacao trees, which are used to make chocolate, thrive.

Ghana and Cote D’ivoire – two nations that produce over half the world’s chocolate – would be under pressure and the worry was that chocolate supplies would be dwindling within just a few decades.

Trending hashtags aside, for cocoa farmers in Ghana, and many others countries that rely on the crop, the challenges and threats to their livelihoods are very real.

And cocoa’s importance to Ghana and its people should not be underestimated. The number of families living off cocoa farming number around 800,000, with the crop generating about US$2 billion in foreign exchange every year – a major contributor to the country’s GDP.

The bean’s significance is seen here, on a more personal level, in an ad that ran in a local paper while we were there, touting cocoa as protection against tooth decay and as a salve for menopause.

Who knew cocoa could reduce signs of ageing? 

With that in mind, we set out for some of the rural districts where Cocoa Life farms – we had heard – had increased their cocoa yields by as much as 10-fold in some areas.

Deep in cocoa country

About two hours inland from Accra, Awutu Senya is home to several communities involved in the programme, and locals officials were keen to show us what kind of progress they’ve been making (and what else Mondelez might be able to help them with).

One local leader of the Awutu Senya district was brimming with suspiciously optimistic feedback on Cocoa Life, to the point I was starting to think Mondelez may have started a cult. It could probably have been forgiven, had such a thing slipped under the radar in a country that bathes in the gazes of Pentecostal minister billboards.

One of those taking charge of the mission is Yaa Peprah Amekudzi, Cocoa Life’s country lead for Ghana – and a force to be reckoned with.

I have been trailing alongside her as we go, trying to piece together the crumbs she leaves behind.

Cass Mason on the frontline with Yaa as they assess the lay of the land. Photo: Kwabena Agyeman

Cocoa and women

Her leadership is no accident.

Mondelez International appears to be putting its money where its mouth is, claiming 35 percent of all management positions worldwide are filled by women, a rate that jumps to 42 percent in Australia and New Zealand. The company’s board of directors exceeds the S&P 500 average of 19.9 percent with women holding 23 percent of the board positions. Even so, there is work to do.

The Cocoa Life programme targets women’s empowerment as a key priority, outlining the importance of women’s hands-on involvement if cocoa communities are to thrive.

A grab from the programme’s website shows how investing in women is very much win-win.

“Increased involvement of women in the cocoa supply chain leads to more productive farms, improved financial management, better education for youth and more sustainable, thriving communities.”

It’s as simple as that.

I got to meet many of these women at a welcoming ceremony I had naively imagined would be small and intimate in scale. I soon realised hundreds had travelled many hours across rough terrain to meet us in a forum where everyone could ask questions and have their say.

It didn’t take long for women to rise from their seats and filter into the centre of the crowd where they burst into a song called ‘Side by side’. 

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t always the case. Not so long ago, according to the song (and Yaa leans in to confirm it), men were at the back and women at the front. Now, like the women sing, they’re “side by side”.

“We used to say ‘When the hen crows, she is no longer a hen,” Yaa chuckles. But women’s increasing involvement in farming cocoa is changing that, and the sound of women’s voices are becoming commonplace not just in community events like this, but in the day-to-day workings of life on the farm.

These local girls were singing a chant that translated as: “You might think we’re crazy, but madness lives in everyone’s house.” Photo: Kwabena Agyeman

Empowering women farmers is one of the project’s main targets. In Ghana, where women farmers earn around 30 percent less than men and despite doing 40 percent of the farming own only 2 percent of the land, initiatives have:

– Bumped up cocoa yields – in some cases doubling – after giving women better access to training

– Improved financial literacy, resilience and household incomes

– Helped locals to save money, which is then reinvested into their farms and children’s education

– Mobilised women volunteers to travel around and train (often male) farmers on modern farming techniques, skills which are then passed on to other women in the Cocoa Life programme. 

One woman, who tells me she’s 36 and has a degree in agriculture, travels the long dirt roads of the district to teach groups of mostly male farmers sustainable farming techniques. Do men struggle with being given instructions from a woman? Initially, yes, but once they see how much more efficiently they can do their work, that evaporates, she says. 

The financial literacy training and opportunity to make auxiliary products – like soap – have also helped women achieve a new level of independence.

Although not everyone is convinced. Yaa points to two of the elders at the welcome ceremony, men, giving one another looks and making faces. Women have come a fair way, but the road ahead is still long.

My cult theory gets some more oxygen when Yaa takes the floor and starts a tit-for-tat chant: Into the microphone she chants ‘Ghana’, the crowd responds ‘Cocoa’, she says ‘Cocoa’, the crowd responds ‘Life’, she offers ‘business’ and back comes ‘Mondelez’.

“Mondelez! Let the joy begin!”

The crowd roars with approval. 

Mondelez apparently had nothing to do with the chant, Hatton tells me. The appropriation of the Mondelez tagline was down to the community. (While the company had actually just signed off on a new tagline, the farmers seem pretty happy with the old one.)

Challenges of the cocoa life 

Deeper inland, a meeting with members of local communities gathered in Atta ne Atta reveal men and women sit on opposite sides of the room. Side by side, yes, but tradition is still very much part of the proceedings. After four or five men answer questions on behalf of everyone assembled, Mondelez’s Hatton asks if we might hear what some of the women have to say, and laughter ripples through the crowd. There’s a brief and uncomfortable pause before a woman in the front row takes the floor.

This woman later explains to me men still hold many traditional ideas about women, despite their increasing involvement in working the farms. 

Opening the meeting to the floor allowed farmers themselves to explain what some of the biggest challenges to the industry right now are. One that came up a lot was climate change: famers must deal with the increasing frequency of droughts, floods, and in one case – a large fire that took out acres of cocoa fields. 

Keeping young people interested in the farming careers of their parents and grandparents has also been proving difficult as children flee the growing districts for the pull of Accra. 

A woman in the community of Atta ne Atta speaks about how cocoa farming has helped improved her literacy skills. Photo: Kwabena Agyeman

These concerns form the basis of the programme’s strategy to modernise cocoa farming in order to increase yields and protect the environment against ever-worsening climate change. 

Asked what these changes had been like, after farming for so long a certain way,  the community gave a near-unanimous: “Difficult”.

Trees which had spent generations being planted in a scattered, ad hoc, fashion, were now being planted – from seedling instead of seed – in neat rows. The seemingly simple switch allowed for much easier pollinating, pruning and harvesting.

However, the rewards have been worth it. These farmers reported an increase of from around one 74kg bag for the surrounding land a month to up to 60 now that farmers had stuck with the new methods and women were involved. 

The annual cocoa calendar had to be recalibrated from four distinct seasons to a monthly harvest to cope with the bump in growth.

“I’m partially rich now,” a local farm-owner grinned. 

Corporate Social Responsibility

It’s a term bandied about as much as ‘content is king’ or ‘going forward’ but for big businesses with reputations to uphold, and new generations of socially conscious consumers, any business worth its salt has a solid corporate social responsibility strategy.

Projects like Cocoa Life wouldn’t exist if they didn’t reap commercial benefits, but companies also wouldn’t be able to keep up with what consumers want without a robust social responsibility plan and green credentials.

Mondelez has set itself a goal of 100 percent sustainably-sourced cocoa. The target year to achieve that is still unannounced, however, the company has gone from 21 percent at the end of 2016 to a current percentage of 35.

Cadbury has always come up against high expectations from consumers – especially in New Zealand. This never reared its head quite as publicly as the New Zealand outrage over the company’s brief foray into palm oil. Why was everyone so angry? Especially given so many other brands use palm oil in their chocolate here.

“[Kiwi] consumers have grown up with Cadbury, so they have higher expectations of the products we deliver to them and they want to know that they’re made in the right way,” says Hatton.

Fermenting cocoa beans left out to dry. The beans smell strongly of vinegar and have to be turned every few hours. Photo: Kwabena Agyeman

“Consumers expect us to be sourcing cocoa in the right way, and we’re really proud of what we’re doing.”

Hatton says it’s “always good to be held to account. That’s how we do business.”

* Cass Mason visited Ghana to see how the cocoa industry is confronting the challenges of climate change, courtesy of Mondelez International 

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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