Ghana is a country in West Africa which spans the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to a variety of ethnic groups and is also the beautiful nation that gifted us all the vibrant Kente cloth. West Africa produces about 70% of the world’s cocoa and Ghana is responsible for at least 45% of all cocoa produced globally. Earlier this year, the Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo made a bold and wide-reaching pronouncement. He shared that Ghana would no longer sell and export its cocoa to its Western trading partners but will instead begin to process up to 50% of all its cocoa into chocolate.
Now on the surface, this does not seem to be that big of a deal. I mean what would be the big deal if the US decides to halt the sale of its corn? Or if Mexico begins to make its own Tequila from scratch? To help you understand why this is a big deal, perhaps, I need to share a little about the relationship between African countries and their Western counterparts. Frankly speaking, this relationship is at its core, a primarily exploitative one. For over two hundred years of colonialism, Western nations have plundered and exploited African raw materials, sending them over to their countries for processing into finished goods while refusing to develop refining capacities in the areas from where they are cheaply sourced.
Fast forward to the modern era and not much has changed. This steady exploitation of African countries for palm oil, tin, gold, cocoa and other resources translates to African economies being built solely around the exportation of their raw materials. It also means that the continent misses out on the massive gains associated with finished products. Many African countries are poor and have to accept this because it takes time, expertise and a healthy financial system to develop refining abilities. Even when built, the finished products might not generate foreign exchange immediately so these countries also choose not to compromise their foreign exchange earnings.
The cocoa industry produced roughly 4.5 million tons of cocoa in 2020 which is forecasted to reach 4.76 million tons by 2025. For its part, the global chocolate industry which consumes 45% of all cocoa produced is valued at a whopping $137 billion dollars. For the countries of West Africa that produce much of the world’s cocoa, due to lack of refining abilities, has only about 3-6% of the world’s chocolate market. Here’s the truth: Swiss chocolate is not just Swiss chocolate, its cocoa is sourced from Ghana. Belgium is the chocolate capital of the world only because Ghana is the second cocoa capital of the world. A quick calculation shows that Ghana stands to gain a lot more value for its cocoa if it moves towards getting a share of the chocolate market. For this reason, this decision by Ghana is a far reaching one with the potential to unlock a lot of social and economic opportunities.
For one, if Ghana sees this through, a direct consequence would be the creation of a more levelled playing ground for African artisan chocolate brands. At present, Ghana’s economy is geared towards the production of cocoa. This is because the country generates much needed foreign exchange dollars from the sale of the commodity. The value in finished chocolate is mostly generated and determined by companies in Europe and America. Ghanaian companies were previously discouraged from manufacturing chocolate owing to a 60% tax on chocolate sales in the country. Ghana’s current focus on chocolate production now means better conditions for companies making chocolate in the country which has a multiplier effect on the economy from jobs to more purchasing power.
In 2019, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire suspended the sales of cocoa to some Western countries for their refusal to pay premium prices capable of improving the lives of the cocoa farmers in West Africa. Such behaviour is nothing new for multinational companies and the chocolate supply chain has been plagued with various similar issues. One of the most troubling is the use of child labour in cocoa production. Some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers such as Mars, Hershey and Nestle have at various times been held responsible for complicity in this. It is easy to see why. These supply chains are controlled by mega corporations whose only loyalty is to their product, their profits and their shareholders. A new system where the country in which raw materials are sourced also has control of its processing is likely to create a more sustainable ecosystem that works for the welfare of its citizens.
Perilous times lie ahead for the Ghana cocoa industry. If done right, this would mark a turning point for African relationships with the Western nations. However, if poorly executed, it could further sink the industry and cede more control to the mega corporations. I take solace In the words of James Baldwin who wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Ghana has faced this and like billions of Africans across the world, I am cheering for them. I hope you are too.
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Cover image of Asante Bismark drying cocoa beans near his farm in Kyekyewere, Ghana by Mwangi Kirubi.