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The bitter aftertaste of chocolate: why Ghana’s cocoa farmers are struggling to adhere to sustainable cocoa production standards by Adjoa Annan

Prompted by demands from consumers to know where the chocolate we eat comes from and how it is made, companies producing chocolate are increasingly investing in measures such as certification schemes and company-driven sustainability initiatives in an effort to make chocolate production more transparent and sustainable. However, cocoa farmers in Ghana are struggling to adhere to environmental standards for more sustainable cocoa production practices. Adjoa Annan explains why.

Consumers are more interested than ever to obtain information about the sustainability of cocoa beans, one of the main ingredients of chocolate, including the way in which it is sourced. At the farm gate level, where the sourcing of raw cocoa beans begins, Sustainable Cocoa Production (SCP) is increasingly promoted through the implementation of certification programmes and company-driven sustainability initiatives. These programmes attempt to enhance process quality through farmers’ adoption of production practices that focus on reducing environmental harm and including social considerations, such as paying a fair price for raw cocoa.

However, efforts to ensure SCP have been largely compromised by a lack of transparency and accountability of certification auditing systems [1] [2]. What is less known are the effects of undesirable incentives for cocoa farmers and a low level of knowledge transfer on their ability to ensure SCP. This article seeks to explain some of the barriers cocoa farmers face in adhering to environmental standards prescribed by the certification schemes they are subscribed to.

One objective of my PhD research on quality enhancement in Ghana’s cocoa sector is to examine how cocoa buyers control and promote process quality at the farm gate level. Two communities were selected for this study from the Adansi South and Amasie West districts in the Ashanti region, which accounts for one of the largest cocoa-producing regions in Ghana. Within the various cocoa-growing communities, different Licensed Buying Companies (LBCs) purchase cocoa beans. LBCs employ a purchasing clerk(s) who buys cocoa beans from farmers.[1]

For the purpose of the study, an LBC which implemented the UTZ certification scheme and a cooperative supplying cocoa beans through an international chocolate brand’s label that adopts Fairtrade principles into its sustainability programme were studied. Purchasing clerks, inspection officers facilitating the auditing of farms, and farmers enrolled in both UTZ and Fairtrade programmes were also interviewed. By using in-depth interviews, participant observation, and farm visits, training regarding the UTZ and Fairtrade environmental best practices and factors on farmers’ adoption and non-adoption of best practices were examined.

Empirical observations revealed some challenges compromising effective SCP. Farmers were not effectively trained on the UTZ and Fairtrade environmental best practices. In the case of the international chocolate brand studied, farmers were seemingly sporadically trained on Fairtrade best practices once or twice a year, during cooperative meetings. The LBC that implemented the UTZ certification scheme organized training for farmers only once annually. In both cases, group trainings held in classroom venues were not suitable for explaining certain best practices that demanded on-farm demonstrations. This led to farmers’ poor understanding and implementation of environmental best practices on farms.

Farmers enrolled in both certification schemes noted that they struggled to understand technical topics presented in training, especially related to agrochemical use, health and safety issues, and water and waste management. Consequently, some farmers did not properly adopt best practices such as removing rubbish and agrochemical bottles from farms and wearing safety clothing. Some farmers also struggled to understand the required measurement of agrochemicals.

Aside from poor training, farmers noted that adopting all environmental best practices was time-consuming. Low-price premiums paid to farmers served as a disincentive to adopt best practices. Farmers complained that the premiums received for enrolling in certification programmes were not sufficient to warrant their efforts[2]. These factors led to a low adoption rate on Fairtrade and UTZ certification environmental best practices. However, interviewed farmers felt that a premium increase and access to frequent on-farm training could enhance their efforts to adhere to sustainable production practices [3].

Overall, SCP was not effectively promoted in the various studied communities. Cocoa buyers did not seem to invest enough in the sourcing communities where they buy cocoa beans. In order to achieve sustainable chocolate, there should be an increased engagement of farmers to enhance the quality of cocoa bean sourcing processes. The needs of farmers should also be addressed to ensure cocoa farming as a sustainable livelihood. At present, this is not happening, which is leaving chocolate with a bitter aftertaste.

[1] In one of the studied communities, for instance, five different LBCs and nine different purchasing clerks were buying cocoa beans from farmers. There is competition over cocoa beans among purchasing clerks.

[2] As at 2018, the premium received by UTZ and Fairtrade farmers interviewed for this study in the studied communities was 1.4 USD and 1.6 USD, respectively per the standard 64kg bag of cocoa beans.

Fountain, & Hütz-Adams. (2015). Cocoa Barometer – Looking for a Living Income. Cocoa Barometer, 42–43.
Fountain, A., & Huetz-Adams, F. (2018). Cocoa Barometer.
In-depth interviews with farmers during data collection from July 2017 to March 2018 in Aponapon and Subiriso communities, Ashanti region, Ghana.

adjoa annan.jpgAbout the author:

Adjoa Annan is a PhD candidate at the Center for Development Research of the University of Bonn, Germany. Annan completed a Master’s degree in Development Studies at the ISS.