I am a cocoa farmer: Bismark Botwe, Central Region, Ghana

'Farming cocoa definitely needs a side business'

By Kristy Leissle

- Last updated on GMT

Cocos farmers Bismark Botwe and his wife Joyce Aidoo on their farm in Ghana, Pic: Kristy Leissle
Cocos farmers Bismark Botwe and his wife Joyce Aidoo on their farm in Ghana, Pic: Kristy Leissle

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In the fifth article in her occasional 'I am a cocoa farmer series', cocoa scholar Kristy Leissle talks to Bismark Botwe, about the struggle to make a decent living income from farming cocoa – and why he is now saving the ‘sweatings’ from the pods to earn extra money from the pulp that goes into making cacao juice for the western market.

Bismark Botwe was cracking open cocoa pods. I was sitting on a jerrican, watching Botwe and his wife of eight years, Joyce Aidoo, transfer beans from pod to bucket. We were near the village of Kwaffo, in Ghana’s Central Region. In fact, we were just down the road from the site of my previous interview for this series, with Ama Ampomaa​.

As I do whenever I meet a cocoa farmer for the first time, I began by asking Botwe about himself and his family. Where was he from? (Agona Bobikuma, a village about 40 kilometers east.) Where was Aidoo from? (Agona Nkum, a town close to Bobikuma, though they had met in Kwaffo.) How many children did they have?

It turned out that Botwe and Aidoo do not yet have children. (Botwe is 36, Aidoo 30.) I did my best to hide my surprise. Typically, when I ask that question, a really nice conversation follows about the farmer’s family. The farmer glows with pride as she or he tells me about their children and sometimes grandchildren: educational and professional accomplishments, where they live and how often they visit, their own interest (or not) in cocoa farming.

‘How is your cocoa?’

Now I changed tack, asking Botwe how the cocoa was coming along this season.

The rains in Ghana have been very late this year, only arriving now [early November] when they should have fallen months ago. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Botwe’s main harvest was off to a slow start. He was also concerned because the late rains have been very heavy. That can damage flowers or baby pods, and lead to black pod disease.

In Ghana here, our cocoa is the best. It is correct. Our process of fermentation and drying, it is correct. And that makes the taste of the cocoa also correct  -- Bismark Botwe

Still, he was optimistic about his harvest. Botwe had been replacing older trees with new hybrids. Like most farmers I talk with, he was grateful that the hybrids matured faster than older varieties – within three years, as opposed to five. He also pointed out a physical advantage: the hybrids don’t grow as tall.

So, I don’t get a cramped neck from looking up during harvest​,” Botwe told me.

Botwe typically harvests 30 bags from his 10 acres (nearly two metric tons). He thought he would get even more this season, thanks to the replanting. I asked if he was satisfied with his cocoa earnings.

In the 2020-21 season, the new Living Income Differential of $400 MT went into effect. Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) raised the producer price from GH¢514 per bag (US$84) to GH¢660 (US$108) – a 28% increase. Botwe had been unimpressed.

The price rise wasn’t that much​,” he said. “The margin was small, so I wasn’t that happy​.”

For 2021-22, COCOBOD has kept the producer price the same, at GH¢660 per bag. Meanwhile, inflation has caused the price of other goods and services to rise.

Botwe employs six labourers every season to help with his harvest.

It is difficult, very difficult for us​,” he said. “Even though the price of cocoa didn’t go up, the laborers demand more money. And that causes a lot of stress!​” Previously, Botwe would pay labourers GH¢50 (US$8.17) per day, and now they were asking for GH¢60 (US$9.80).

The stress is on the profit that I make at the end of the day​,” Botwe told me.

Cocoa and family

As we talked, I noticed similarities between Botwe’s experience, and that of John Adamnor, the first farmer I interviewed for this series. Both men had been taxi drivers in bush towns before inheriting cocoa farmland. Both were in the process of replanting and seemed equally enthusiastic about the new hybrids.

And yet, while Botwe’s few additional acres (Adamnor has seven) produced almost twice Adamnor’s yield, Adamnor had expressed more enthusiasm about farming cocoa. When I asked what it felt like to inherit farmland, Botwe paused his work of cracking pods, reflecting.

I didn’t have an option. It was something I inherited, so I couldn’t watch it go to waste. I had to come take over the farm​.” He seemed to have an internal debate over whether this had improved his circumstances.

It’s good​,” he said, meaning cocoa farming, “but if you brought me a car, I would gladly quit the farming business.​” He paused again. “Well, I wouldn’t quit entirely, but I would drive as a side business. Farming cocoa definitely needs a side business​.”

As I listened to Botwe, it occurred to me that farmers usually light up most when describing the benefits cocoa has brought to their families. They share stories about how cocoa income sent children to school and apprenticeships, paid fees, and purchased books and other supplies. They speak with gratitude about how farming cocoa enabled their children’s accomplishments.

I wondered if Botwe’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for cocoa was because he and Aidoo do not yet have children. It is hard to overstate the importance of cocoa to generational wealth and security in Ghana. Both land and the right to farm it are inheritable. In my experience, farmers do not invest in cocoa solely to improve their individual prospects. They do it to benefit their families, during their lifetime and after.

There is not the same emphasis on wealth remaining within the nuclear family, as in North America or Europe. Profits from farming cocoa are invariably shared, in one form or another, with extended family. Nevertheless, as parents, cocoa farmers I have met are especially proud to be able to offer their own children a path to upward mobility. Botwe and Aidoo hadn’t yet had this opportunity.

I ventured to ask what Botwe thought was good about cocoa farming. That’s when I learned Botwe and Aidoo have chosen to spend their cocoa earnings on sending the children of extended family to school. So far, they have funded the primary or secondary education for two nieces and two nephews.

The couple have also used cocoa income to build a family home in a nearby bush town. They have finished part of the house, where they live, and are working on the rest.

In the past​, we were losing the sweatings from the cocoa. I realised I could get money, to be paid for something that was going to waste anyway --  Bismark Botwe

I asked what else they had done with cocoa earnings. Botwe paused for a long time.

I’ve reinvested it back into the farm​.”

Eho nsuo mpo nie​” (“If that’s what they pay for the waste​”)

I had noticed as soon as I arrived that Botwe did things differently on his farm, compared to any I had visited before.

A drenching rain had just fallen. Botwe and Aidoo had laid a clean white plastic sheet on the muddy ground. Both wore hairnets, gloves, and surgical masks – all eggshell blue – and white plastic aprons. Before cracking open the pods, Botwe had sprayed his cutlass with sanitizer, and Aidoo had sanitized her gloved hands.

I’d never seen such a surgical approach to cracking cocoa pods. But had I visited almost any farm along the road to Assin Akrofuom, the nearest bush town, I would have seen a similar setup. This was because, like many of his neighbours, for the past two years Botwe has delivered his raw cocoa beans to the pulp-extraction company, KOA.

On the drive, I’d seen many sealed white buckets neatly stacked on the side of the dirt road. These, I learned, were filled with freshly harvested beans. The buckets would be picked up by tricycles (three-wheeled motorized vehicles used for transporting goods), and taken to the KOA processing facility in Assin Akrofuom. There, they would be ‘de-pulped’ and returned to the farmer, who would then ferment and dry them as usual for sale.

Just about every farmer outside the KOA network simply drains away the excess fluid, called ‘sweatings​,’ from cocoa pulp during fermentation. They let the sweatings seep into the ground or a collection bowl.

KOA, however, processes pulp sweatings into a variety of products. The best-known of these is a sweet cocoa juice. The company pays farmers GH¢12 (US$2) per bucket for beans that will be de-pulped for cocoa juice.

Botwe had been sceptical when he first learned about KOA – so much so that he didn’t attend the first meeting that KOA’s Sourcing Manager, Samuel Baah, held in Kwaffo. But soon, Botwe started hearing from farmers who had chosen to work with KOA.

Word travels fast in the bush. The saying started to go around, “Eho nsuo mpo nie…​.” The rough translation is, “If that’s what they pay for the waste….”​ The rest of the sentence is implied: “… then what of the value of the cocoa?​” The saying was the farmers’ way of acknowledging that KOA had helped them see there was more value to their cocoa crop than anyone had previously thought.

The value of pulp

Botwe went to the next KOA meeting, along with 40 or 50 of his neighbours, and started selling his own pulp soon after. I asked what had convinced him.

In the past​,” he said, “we were losing the sweatings from the cocoa. I realised I could get money, to be paid for something that was going to waste anyway​.” Nobody that I knew of in Ghana had paid for sweatings before, so I asked if this proposition had seemed bizarre.

Well, I realized that if they were taking [the sweatings], they would make something profitable from it. So, it made sense they would pay me for it​.”

Did you ever think the sweatings would be profitable?”​ I asked. A smile crinkled Botwe’s eyes above his mask as he replied, firmly, “No.”

03_botwe aidoo cracking pods_kristy leissile_crop
KOA pays pays Bismark GH¢12 (US$2) per bucket for beans that will be de-pulped for cocoa juice. Pic: Kristy Leissle

It is more work for Botwe to maintain the strict hygiene practices required for a fresh juice product. While KOA provides the necessary personal protective equipment (hairnets, gloves, etc.), the hygiene routine does slow down pod-cracking. I asked Botwe if the price he received for pulp was worth it.

In the beginning, I felt happy with the amount I was being paid. But I wish they would increase the price​.” Botwe glanced at the three KOA staff members who had accompanied me to his farm. “By fifty percent!​” he added, making everyone laugh.

But it is worth it,” he concluded, “and I would recommend it [to other farmers] paa paa​.”

Ghana’s ‘correct’ cocoa

As I always do, toward the end of our time together, I shared chocolate with Botwe and Aidoo. I had brought Golden Tree Oranco bars, which are orange-flavoured milk chocolate. Botwe began his review hesitantly.

I can taste the orange​,” he offered. I could tell he was holding back, so I encouraged him to share his thoughts freely.

It’s very sweet!​” he said at last. “I’d prefer if it was less sweet, because it’s not good for the health​.” Botwe gave a knowing look, and the KOA staff members laughed. Aidoo smiled.

Botwe was referring specifically to sexual health. It is universal knowledge in Ghana that consuming sugar decreases a man’s sexual energy; too much can lead to impotence. I had been hearing this for 16 years, since I first started researching food cultures here, so I wasn’t surprised – only embarrassed that I hadn’t brought a dark chocolate bar, for Botwe at least. Aidoo was enjoying the milk chocolate Oranco.

It won’t affect her​,” Botwe said, nodding at Aidoo. She smiled again.

As he finished cracking the last few pods, I asked Botwe if there was anything else he would like to share, especially for readers outside Ghana. He replied immediately.

In Ghana here, our cocoa is the best. It is correct. Our process of fermentation and drying, it is correct. And that makes the taste of the cocoa also correct​.” Amidst his Twi, Botwe kept using the English word, “correct​,” as if to ensure people overseas would understand him.

And I pray​,” he said, “that whatever you write will reach the right people, and that they will believe what you are going to tell them​.”

Author’s note: Conversions from Ghana cedis to US dollars were current as of 1 November 2021. During our interview, I asked questions in English and Bismark Botwe replied in Twi. My thanks to Rose Maameyaa Mante for translating.

About 'Dr Chocolate'

Kristy-Leissle (1)

Dr Kristy Leissle is a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, and a member of CN's editorial board. Since 2004, her work has investigated the politics, economics, and cultures of these industries, focusing on West African political economy and trade, the US craft market, and the complex meanings produced and consumed through chocolate marketing and advertising. Her recent book, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018) explores cocoa geopolitics and personal politics, and was #3 on Food Tank’s 2018 Fall Reading List.

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