As part of Chocolate Week, we asked journalist Veronique Mistiaen to write a guest blog about her recent trip to Ghana with Magnum Ice Cream , where she visited Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa farms.
The early morning sun is filtering through the dark green cocoa leaves. Men and women in bright wax-print clothing move efficiently amongst the dense, short trees. A woman, balancing a large woven basket on her head, breaks into a song and the other farmers join in, their voices echoing through the cocoa farm. It is harvest time at Gold Coast camp, one of several farming communities in the Assin Fosu district of Ghana’s central region, producing premium cocoa beans for Magnum ice cream.
Men select ripe yellow and orange cocoa pods, which look like elongated, ribbed melons, and cut them from the tree trunks with machetes. They work with fast, precise movements, careful not to damage the trunks, so that new pods can grow back. Women collect the freshly cut pods and gather them in a large colourful heap.
Farming communities in the region have grown cocoa beans for generations. Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world after Ivory Coast and cocoa is Ghana’s largest cash crop. In 2011, Unilever’s Magnum ice cream joined forces with global conservation NGO Rainforest Alliance to bring sustainable agriculture practices to cocoa farmers in the region, promote nature conservation and increase the quality of life of farming communities.
After just one year, 450 farmers in the Assin Fosu region have already achieved Rainforest Alliance certification – a rigorous process that covers social, economic and environmental factors, including soil management and biodiversity protection. It also means better conditions and often a higher income for workers. Magnum’s goal is to source the entirety of its global cocoa supply from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms by 2015.
For Magnum, the certification programme offers a guaranteed supply of the highest quality beans sourced from sustainable cocoa farms; for farmers it translates into practical and tangible life improvements, such as better harvest, higher income which allows them to pay for school expenses, and the digging of a water well in the village.
Back on the cocoa farm, men are sifting through the orange and yellow pods heap, carefully removing black and imperfect ones. Women join them and together they break open the pods with sticks and scoop out the cocoa beans, which are covered in a sweet, sticky, white pulp. When all the beans have been collected, they are piled on large banana leaves, then covered with more leaves and wrapped tightly, so that little oxygen can reach them. The beans remain in their banana leave casing for seven days, fermenting and developing their distinctive chocolate flavour.
After seven days, the beans are spread out on bamboo tables and left to dry for another week or two. During that time, the beans are turned repeatedly to ensure they are all completely dry, and imperfect ones are removed. (Beans, which haven’t dried well, develop a bitter taste.) The beans are then poured into large jute bags and sent to the district’s cocoa board, where they are weighted and undergo a strict quality control inspection. They are then graded according to their size and quality. The very best, the premium quality, is supplied to Magnum ice cream.
It is now early afternoon on the cocoa farm and some 30 men and women are sitting on wooden benches in a semi-circle in a glade for their training session. These bi-monthly sessions are an important component of the Magnum/Rainforest Alliance collaboration. In front of them, a tutor writes on a blackboard the key points of today’s topic: Integrated Crop Pest Management – how to identify and deal with pests and diseases, which attack cocoa pods and trees. If untreated, these fungus and bugs can spread to the whole tree and even contaminate the entire cocoa farm. In the past, farmers have lost trees, harvests and farms because they were unable to fight these pests. After a short lecture, trainers take the farmers in small groups around the trees so they can test their knowledge in situ. The training also covers preservation of the eco-system around their farms, health and safety issues and the importance of sending their children to school, among other topics.
“At the beginning, many farmers were not interested in coming to the training sessions,” says trainer Robert Quaye, one of the local farmers formed at the agricultural school in Kumasi, the country’s second largest city after the capital Accra. “But when they saw that farmers who had attended the sessions, got higher yields, they changed their mind and came too.”
The certification project started with eight communities, but has now spread to 17 communities, covering 1550 hectares of land – and has gained the support of all the villages’ chiefs and elders in the region.
The collaboration has already made a substantial impact during the first year, says Christian Mensah, Rainforest Alliance’s representative. “The most obvious benefits are a significant increase in productivity – most farms’ output is now 20% to 30% higher – and the improved quality of the cocoa beans. Farmers have also learnt to protect the ecosystem around their farms, and understand the importance of sending their children to school, which is crucial to the future of the children and the communities.”
The project has also enhanced the status of women, says Fatima Ali, the chief of a neighbouring village. “As a woman, I feel empowered by this programme. I’ve applied the skills I’ve learned through the training and my farm’s yield has increased significantly. I am now training other farmers in the community. Traditionally, farming decisions were taken by men, but now I am training them.”
Farmer Henry Amekudzi says that two years ago, his farm produced eight bags of cocoa beans, weighting 64 kg each. This year, it yielded 11 bags and Amekudzi reckons it could produce as many as 18 bags a year if he applies all the best practices he has learnt. In addition to higher yield, his beans are attracting a premium for being Rainforest Alliance Certified™, he says. Before the certification programme, his cocoa beans brought him about 150 Ghana Cedis (GHS) a bag ($1 is about 1.6 Ghana Cedi); they now fetch 200 Cedis a bag. (As a comparison measure, a laptop computer costs about 800 Cedis and Amekudzi needs about 10 Cedis a week to feed his 12-children family, but as a farmer, he grows his own vegetables and fruits.)
Dusk has now fallen on the village’s thatched mud huts and concrete houses. Families light fires to prepare the evening meal, their second meal of the day. Adam Abubakar and his family are sitting around a low table in front of their house and share a fragrant rice dish from a communal pot. Children, chicken and goats wander nearby. His wife, Rabiatu, reflects on the changes brought by the certification project. “We have benefited enormously. Our production has increased and we have now more money. This has strengthened my relationship with my husband. We are now able to send our children to school and feed them well. We are all happier.”
The success story of the Assin Fosu farmers will soon extend elsewhere in Ghana, as well as Ecuador, as Magnum has pledged to source the entirety of its global cocoa supply from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms by 2015 – buying 30,000 tonnes of the highest quality cocoa beans grown in a sustainable and responsible way.