People work with cocoa beans in Enchi...People work with cocoa beans in Enchi June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. To match Insight GHANA-IVORYCOAST/COCOA REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon (GHANA - Tags: BUSINESS AGRICULTURE FOOD) - RTR40ECS
Beans aplenty: the returns are rarely enough for farmers to break even © Reuters

After the farmers of Akweteykrom village hand-pick their cocoa harvest — once they have split the yellow pods with machetes, fermented the insides under banana leaves for days and then dried the beans in the sun on wooden racks for nearly a week — they must hire a truck to cart the beans down an unpaved, deeply rutted road for more than an hour to the town of Assin Fosu.

In heavy rain, the two narrow, handmade bridges leading out of the 500-person village in Ghana’s central region are submerged. Once the beans do make it to market, they are sold to middlemen and then to multinational processors like Olam and Cargill or producers such as Hershey’s, Nestlé and Mondelez.

But the returns are rarely enough for farmers to break even, despite Ghana’s place as the world’s second-largest cocoa producer — supplying about a fifth of the beans used by the $100bn chocolate industry, but reaping about $2bn in annual export revenues — after neighbouring Ivory Coast.

“Our finances are not good — we don’t have money to support our farms,” says Robert Tetteh, 53, a farmer and member of the local district assembly, where many people have the surname Tetteh, in an echo of the man who is said to have introduced cocoa farming to Ghana in the late 1880s, blacksmith Tetteh Quarshie. “When you look at the work you put in to cultivate just one bag of cocoa, and the money you get from it, the difference is vast. Even though we do all this, we see no benefit from it.”

The industry that provides nearly 7 per cent of Ghana’s GDP and about a quarter of its export earnings does not provide enough for most of its 800,000 farmers to live without government subsidies and aid from non-government organisations. Many live in poverty, lacking access to services such as healthcare and education. Often, they are forced to use their children as labourers.

In May, the government said it was seeking up to $1.5bn from China’s Eximbank to improve farms and install irrigation systems, among other projects. For a country looking to prudently exploit and manage its natural resources, as President Nana Akufo-Addo has said, the cocoa industry may prove an exceedingly difficult task.

For the farmers in Akweteykrom, it is government subsidies that keep them — barely — afloat. They want the government to raise the price per tonne set by the Ghana Cocoa Board, the industry regulator, and to increase subsidies for fuel, fertiliser and other inputs, just as the state announced plans to cut them.

Finance minister Ken Ofori-Atta said this year he wanted to cut the subsidies, which were implemented in 2017 after London prices for cocoa fell by nearly a third during the year before, sending farmer income plummeting. Authorities said the subsidies cost the government the equivalent of about $600 per tonne — Ghana produced about 900,000 tonnes last year.

Cocoa farmers are a powerful political constituency and the finance minister faced an immediate backlash from within his own government. In a recent report, Fitch Solutions suggested that political necessity would quash any move to cut prices but, in August, Mr Ofori-Atta told Bloomberg that the price per tonne should be set by international prices so as not to “create a debt gap”.

Yet in October, ahead of the harvest, Ghana announced it would keep prices flat. The country and neighbouring Ivory Coast, which together produce about 60 per cent of the world’s supply, are moving towards creating an Opec-like cartel that they hope will give them greater power over the market.

The idea of a price cut seems ridiculous to farmers such as Mr Tetteh. “The government is responsible for setting the price and they are the only ones who can fix it,” he says. “We want the support system in an expanded way, but also a price increase.”

Still, the lifeline of a remote village such as Akweteykrom is its road. “Because of the [poor condition of the] roads, the buyer gives a very low price because they have to account for the cost of vehicles to get there and potential losses,” says farmer Joseph Martey.

“Because of the challenges buyers face, sometimes they won’t come back,” Mr Martey adds. “Or the cocoa will spoil because the buyer can’t get a vehicle to cart it away. “A new road would completely change our lives. Anything we farm we would have a ready market for.”

But every successive government since 2006 — when what was once a 6km footpath through the bush was graded into a one-lane dirt road — has promised to complete the road. Last year, the government halted a programme launched by the previous administration that was meant to build $450m worth of roads in cocoa farming regions after it discovered that the money had been spent but almost no roads had been built.

Corruption remains a big problem, says George Osei-Bimpeh, director of Send-Ghana, an NGO dedicated to small­holders, along with obstacles hitting the supply of inputs such as fertiliser: “The majority have instances where even though subsidised inputs may have been provided, they don’t hear about it, don’t know how to access it or they were never delivered.”

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