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Meet Frederick Gamon - cocoa farmer

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

When I met Frederick he was fresh out of church, dressed in his Sunday best - shiny, smart black shoes, black cotton dress trousers and an African print shirt. He had agreed to show me round his cocoa farm and we walked through the town to his house so he could change into his work clothes. This is the view from Frederick's house:

His cocoa farm is around half a mile to the left of the house. He lives almost opposite one of New Koforidua's two schools - one Catholic and the other Presbyterian. Much of the land around is slated for development into housing. New Koforidua is a place people want to return to when they have made money in the cities or overseas. Who can blame them? But it does mean that cocoa farms are being dug up to be turned into buildings, which is a problem for climate change (trees absorb a lot of CO2) and for issues like soil erosion.

Like a lot of cocoa farmers, Frederick is aging. The average cocoa farmer is over 50. Their children are well educated, ambitious and want more from life than growing cocoa. It's a tough job, The Ghana Cocoa Board sets the price of cocoa every year. In fact it sets two - one is the price the farmers can expect to be paid (12,800 cedis per tonne or around £75 per 64kg bag of beans) and the other is the price the government charges cocoa buyers like Mondelez and Nestle to export the beans which is around twice that. As a member of Kuapa Kokoo if Frederick is able to sell his beans on Fairtrade terms there will be an additional Fairtrade premium of around 150 cedis per bag. This is invested in the community at New Koforidua.

Cocoa starts as a flower, which must stay on the tree in order to turn into the fruit. This process takes around 6 months. One of the ways to encourage flowers to grow is hard pruning - this has the added advantage of making sure the pods are accessible for harvesting as they will grow closer to the ground! This can be scary as you're cutting away a lot of good tree but it pays off with increased yield.

Cocoa pods grow all the way up the trunk of the tree and can be green or red or a combination of the two. There is no difference between the red and yellow pods, they are different varieties but can be grafted together so you can sometimes see red and green pods growing on the same tree.

The pods are harvested as they are showing more yellow than red or green, meaning the beans inside are ripe. Frederick piles them up in a clearing and when he has enough he calls on his friends to help with the scooping.

There are around 40 beans in each pod, and it takes three or four of these pods (120-140 beans) to provide the chocolate to make a 180g chocolate bar. When the beans are scooped out, they are covered in white pulp which is so sweet and delicious. It's these sugars that help the fermentation process. You have to make sure you remove the placenta (the stalk on which the beans grow) as that can make the beans bitter. The famer cuts down plantain leaves and piles up the pulpy beans on the leaf, he then covers the beans with other plantain leaves and the fermentation begins. They are fermented for seven days, and need to be turned several times over the course of the week. Here one of Frederick's neighbours fermenting his beans, extracting any rogue pieces of placenta, wood etc.

The smell of the fermentation process is like beer brewing, as the pulpy sugar turns to alcohol and dries. You have to keep an eye on the beans - keep them moving - once you get to the drying stage you keep checking and if they are still purple inside they have not been fermented properly. Once fermented they are dried, again for around a week. If the rainy season continues past the harvest - as happened this year due to climate change - Frederick told me he can't really leave the farm as he has to make sure his beans are covered when it rains and immediately uncovered again once the sun comes out. As the week goes on, the beans harden and and you can hear the difference as you run your hands through them.

The dry beans are bagged up into 64kg sacks and sent to the Ghana Cocoa Board who inspect them and if they are approved they then pay the farmers before selling the beans to the customer - normally a multinational corporation who export them to Europe or North America to be turned into chocolate. Although 70% of global cocoa is grown in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana only around 1% of all the cocoa grown in Ghana is processed there.

The last paragraph poses two questions:

1. What happens if a farmer's beans are not approved by the Ghana Cocoa Board?

2. What would it mean if more chocolate processing happened in Ghana?

I will answer both of these questions in my next two posts.

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