Cocoa processing is not a golden ticket for west Africa
IN 1876 TETTEH QUARSHIE, a blacksmith, smuggled the first cocoa beans into Ghana, hidden beneath his box of tools. He is now celebrated as a national hero; his trees, planted in the hills outside Accra, are a tourist attraction. But did cocoa make him rich? “No,” says a guide. “He harvested for the first time, and then he died.”
West Africans have been seeking fortunes in cocoa ever since. Like Mr Quarshie, they have been short of luck. Ghana and Ivory Coast produce about 60% of the world’s cocoa. Yet they mostly sell unprocessed beans. Their cocoa-export earnings are equivalent to less than a tenth of world chocolate sales. Power lies with a small group of trading firms and chocolate-makers in rich countries. “We send raw materials, they add value,” sighs Owusu Afriyie Akoto, Ghana’s agriculture minister.
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Ghana and Ivory Coast are trying to claw up the value chain. Ghana is close to finalising a $600m loan from the African Development Bank, some of which is expected to support cocoa processing. It is also seeking Chinese help to build a state-run processing plant. Observers see cocoa as a test-case for African industrialisation. But it is not a very useful model. Cocoa is unlikely to bring much revenue or many jobs.
Granted, there have been some successes. About 21% of the world’s cocoa is ground in Africa, up from 15% a decade ago. Ivory Coast grinds nearly a third of its beans and rivals the Netherlands as the world leader by volume. In Ghana’s Tema “free zone”, the smell of cocoa is in the air. Niche Cocoa, one of several processors there, ships cocoa butter, liquor and cake abroad, while selling chocolate at home. Customers cannot believe it is made in Ghana, chuckles Lloyd Ashiley, the plant manager.
Most of the processing in the region is done by the same multinationals that were already grinding cocoa in Europe or elsewhere. In Ghana, firms in free zones get tax breaks. The government, which dominates the cocoa industry, gives a discount on smaller, “light-crop” beans to encourage local processing. But when the cheap beans run out, machines sit idle. Nearly half of capacity is unused.
Gone are the days when George Cadbury built model villages for his British workers. A modern cocoa factory is a labyrinth of juddering metal, supervised from behind computer screens. The entire Ghanaian processing industry employs just a few thousand people. The capital investment required to create one job grinding cocoa in Ivory Coast could create over 300 jobs processing cashew nuts, said the World Bank in 2012.
The biggest problem is geography. Most of the value in chocolate comes from marketing and branding. And it is a big step up from grinding to chocolate-making. Consumers are mostly in Europe or North America. Transporting chocolate through tropical climates is a logistical headache. Chocolate consumption in Africa is low.
Some artisanal confectioners are breaking the mould. Instant Chocolat, an Ivorian firm, sells posh chocs in flavours including baobab and hibiscus. A Ghanaian brand named 57 Chocolate—for the year of the country’s independence—stamps its bars with the Adinkra symbols more commonly found on Ashanti fabrics. Kimberly and Priscilla Addison, the sisters who founded it, hit upon the idea while living in chocoholic Switzerland. “Why not try to produce a chocolate brand that is uniquely African?” asks Kimberly. But these firms operate on a tiny scale. For wannabe chocolate-makers, alas, there is no golden ticket.