The "Working in Ghana" Project

Cocoa Farmer

[In her late fifties, Auntie Maggie has been a cocoa farmer for about fifty years. As a child she worked on her parents farm rather than attend school. She lives in a small town in the Brong-Ahafo Region of western Ghana. Although illiterate, Auntie Maggie is prosperous by local standards. She owns a seven-bedroom house that is one of the best in the area. She and her late husband had four sons and four daughters; two daughters have died. Her youngest son and the five grandchildren living with her help in the farming activities. She took a grandmotherly attitude toward interviewer Stephen Obiri-Yeboah; they conversed in the Twi language.]

Farming is something practical; it does not necessarily demand any formal qualification. You can be a farmer without any formal education. In this locality about 90% of the farmers, mostly cocoa farmers, have never been to school for even a day, but they perform their activities as expected. But it is good for a cocoa farmer or any farmer to have at least the basic education. I know of a few cocoa farmers who are performing creditably in the cocoa business because they have been to school: they can read, listen to foreign news, and come into contact with some knowledgeable people in the cocoa business.

My parents were cocoa farmers. I was not sent to school, but was compelled to accompany them to the farm ever since I was about eight years old. I was asked to plant cocoa when new land was being developed. Through such training I became very experienced in cocoa cultivation and had started working on my own farm when I was 20.

I have several farms. None is less than five acres. The farms are not located near the place where I live. Some are in the Ashanti Region (central Ghana), where I have overseers. Among my duties are to visit these men, who are there with their families, and attend to some of their basic needs. Cocoa cultivation is a seasonal activity whose peak is November and December. My visits to the farms are more frequent during this period, which is harvesting time.

I make sure that the overseers have done all the necessary work so that the trees are healthy and produce a good harvest. I also see to it that they have weeded under the trees at least twice a year, and cut down all parasite trees which will compete with the cocoa trees for the limited nutrients as well as for the sun's rays. If not controlled in that way, the cocoa trees will grow taller and taller, which would make harvesting very, very difficult and increase the cost of production. Then it would be very difficult to get good overseers.

I am present at the farm before the harvested cocoa pods are broken to remove the beans. This enables me to know whether the caretaker has harvested them at the right time. If the pods are not harvested when they are matured, the pod turns a blackish color, spoiling the beans. Spoiled beans are called "abinkyi"--they cannot be sold to the Ghana Cocoa Marketing Board which is the sole buyer of cocoa beans in the country. Soap manufacturers come for abinkyi at very low prices, sometimes less then 5% of the price for good beans. My visit to the farms also enables me to estimate the number of bags that can be harvested. Some caretakers are fond of diverting (stealing) some of the beans when they are dried, so proper eye must be put on the workers.

All particulars pertaining to sales and banking are in my name. This means that I must be at the farms before the dried beans are sent to the purchasing clerk of the Cocoa Marketing Board. Prices are determined by weight and in some cases also by the quality of the beans.

I perform all these duties, in addition to making sure that the trees have good leaves. If disease is detected, I report it to the area agriculture officers, who have been trained to treat trees with chemicals and other methods. When the need arises, I make sure that the required spraying is done. Besides all this supervision, I have a farm that I manage myself. I hire laborers to weed areas that I would not be able to do, and to pluck the cocoa pods that are high above the ground. I visit the farm frequently to make sure that it is in good order. Maintenance is also needed when trees die from disease or bush fires.

I also make sure that areas where young seedlings are to be planted are first cleared of weeds so that the laborers doing weeding won't cut the new trees by accident. In the early stages of the cultivation, food crops are also grown to provide shade for the younger plants.

I am proud of my work because it is the source of my income. Since I started farming, I have been able to build two houses from the proceeds when output was encouraging. Agriculture is the backbone of the Ghanaian economy. The government treasures the cocoa industry and therefore provides free services at our district headquarters. Cocoa is one of the few crops that has a ready market; there is no problem with sales except when the beans are not treated well, and even then soap manufacturers will buy, though at lower prices.

The government has built clinics and hospitals in a nearby town for us, the cocoa farmers. I am proud to be part of such contributions. We can also buy some commodities like cloths, cutlasses (machetes), and other farm tools at highly subsidized cost.

I also feel happy when, as a woman, my caretakers come to me for their instructions and even sometimes for advice.

However I become sad to hear from friends that the government pays less than half the world price to us for our product. There are also no allowances, which means that the little amount I am paid must last for the whole year. Only the educated cocoa farmers among us are selected for any exchange programs outside the country, which is a cheat. And the purchasing clerks who buy the beans for the Cocoa Marketing Board cheat us by adjusting the machines to make our produce appear to weigh less than it actually does. They take the difference for themselves.

Even though the government has put in place scholarship schemes to educate cocoa farmers' children, we are deprived of it. Those who work at the office sell them to non-cocoa farmers. This has made most of our children unable to attain high levels of education because of the costs involved. I have nevertheless recommended cocoa cultivation to my child, who has only a basic education, as well as to a friend. National Farmers Day, which is celebrated once a year is a source of inspiration. I hope that as more educated people enter the profession, respect for our jobs will deepen, and we will get the chance to argue our grievances at the national level.

Farming in this area depends a lot on nature. I, therefore, don't have a specific number of hours I work in a typical day. During cocoa season, I normally go to farm around seven in the morning and come back home around four in the evening. The number of hours that I spend at the farm depends on what needs to be done. Also, being self-employed, I do not receive instructions from anyone concerning when to go to farm and when to come back.

When there is much work to be done, I normally go to the farm from Monday to Saturday, and work intensely. Except for fact that I worship on Sundays I might even join some of my colleagues who go to farm on Sundays. On the other hand, when the work is less, I may go to farm twice in a week.

Some of the implements used in cocoa farming are the cutlass for weeding and harvesting the pods which are near the ground, the "go-to-hell" for plucking those pods at the high levels where the cutlass cannot reach, the raffia mat for drying the fermented cocoa beans, baskets for conveying the pods together for breaking. At the end of the six-day fermentation period, baskets are used to convey the beans to the drying area, mostly in the house. Other items are chemicals and spraying machine, and a special boot designed for the bush so that the dangers of stepping on harmful objects and receiving snake bites are minimized, if not eliminated.

Almost all my production has been of high quality, except in a few instances when rainfall disturbed the drying period.

Cocoa farming, though rewarding, is very tedious. It makes one become old in the shortest time due to excess work. The problem is reduced if there is money to employ laborers to assist in duties like weeding, plucking of the pods and the carrying, which is mostly done by carrying containers on one’s head. Also, during the rainy season it becomes difficult to work on the farm.

People may think evil about you when they see that you are prospering, but they forget about the difficulties you went through during the harvesting as well as planting. The caretakers do the full range of work from weeding to harvesting. They may be given a third or half of the total output from the farm. The terms vary from person to person, and depend also on the nature of the farm. Better farms are normally on a one-third basis, and farms which don't produce so much are on a half share basis.

There are cordial relationships between me and my caretakers as well as with all the laborers I employ. Most of the officers employed by the government also do their best, but some of them sell items which should be supplied free to charge to us.

All the cocoa farmers have formed co-operatives. We elect a chief farmer at the local, district, regional, and national levels. The association also helps to unite all the farmers, to get access to some commodities, and to present our grievances as a collective body for redress.

Truly my children and I have benefited from cocoa farming.