The Puzzle of Cocoa in Ghana

by: Sofia del Valle

I have been a big chocolate lover my whole life. If you ask my siblings, they will tell you I can be a generous person sometimes, but never when it comes to chocolate: every year, the bars that I would get as birthday presents went directly to a secret drawer in my room—to later be slowly enjoyed while reading a good mystery book (I would argue, however, that age has made me more generous, or maybe just more able to buy myself some chocolate when I want, and hence less of a Scrooge).

Given this love for chocolate, it is quite interesting that only this summer I came in first contact with the fruit from which it derives. Last week, in a farm in the Suhum district of Ghana, a kind farmer opened a fresh cocoa pod for me, and I finally discovered the taste of raw cocoa. It was very different from what I expected: sweet and slightly citrusy, closer to lemon cream than to chocolate as we know it.

Food system
Here I am, just seconds away from tasting fresh cocoa for the first time

DISCONNECTED FOOD SYSTEM

Unless you live near the equator, it is very likely that your experience is similar to mine, in that the closest you have come to actual cocoa is through cocoa powder or cocoa butter, intermediate products that later become chocolate. This disconnection is no coincidence, but a structural characteristic of the cocoa supply chain: around 60% of the global cocoa production happens in two West African countries, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Yet, the whole African continent consumes only about 3% of the chocolate produced globally, while Europe and the U.S. together account for more than 70% of this consumption. Several of these cocoa farmers with whom I talked this week have never tasted chocolate in their lives!

Group interview with cocoa farmers in the Central Region of Ghana

Cocoa is the main agriculture export in Ghana, accounting for 7% of its GDP and a quarter of their exports; yet it is produced almost exclusively by small-scale farmers that grow cocoa trees in few acres of land and take care of them with the help of their families. This makes cocoa a highly informal sector with an important portion of unrecognized labor. In many cases the farmers’ wives and children perform key tasks in cocoa production without being acknowledged as cocoa farmers or receiving any of the income.

Issues like this one are not exclusive to the cocoa sector. Our food system has become highly complex and globalized, and a great proportion of the products we consume can be traced to a few transnational companies on one side, and millions of small producers on the other one. These global supply chains have severe social and environmental impacts that affect disproportionally those who produce the raw materials.

A COMPLEX RESEARCH TASK

Launched in 2013, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign (BtB) is a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains. The campaign led these companies to commit to improving their policies regarding land, water and workers’ rights, gender equality and climate change, among other issues. The next stage of the Oxfam campaign monitors implementation of such commitments. For our Keough School i-Lab project, my Master of Global Affairs colleagues Moaz Uddin, Caroline Andridge and I have been supporting the work of Oxfam’s country teams in Malawi, India and Ghana on the implementation of this project at the national level. For the case of Ghana, the focus is, as you may already imagine, cocoa.

The task sounds more straightforward than it really is: I imagined we could take the main chocolate companies, review their policies, trace the communities where they are sourcing their cocoa, and see if such commitments and policies are being implemented there and how. Sounds easy, right? Reality is, as we keep discussing at the Keough School, more complex; linking companies with cocoa producers is a harder task than I imagined: each level of the supply chain ─ companies, traders, government agencies, middle-men, cooperatives, farmers ─ is a puzzle in itself.

Part of the amazing Oxfam in Ghana team. Oxfam’s GROW campaign englobes BtB and other efforts on making the food system more fair and sustainable

Like the books I used to read whilst eating chocolate in my home in Santiago, my task has become almost the one of a detective, asking questions and following clues that we find in interviews and field visits. The goal is now helping the Oxfam-Ghana team to gain a clearer picture of who is doing what in the cocoa sector. For now, I can say that the distance between cocoa and chocolate is indeed very big; however, our interviews with farmers and local organizations, and the work with the team here in Ghana, show that there are good people doing good work in order to improve the lives of cocoa farmers. I feel grateful to be a part of their team—to witness and contribute to their important work in my own humble way.

Into the Warm Heart of Africa

by: Mian Moaz Uddin

“What is this boy from Peshawar doing in Africa?,” I kept thinking to myself as I looked down from my 30,000-foot window over the Sahara Desert. By the time we stopped at Addis Ababa for the layover, I was having a mini existential crisis.

The past four months of my master’s program, I’ve been in the i-Lab learning about the Behind the Brands campaign with Oxfam. My colleagues Sofia Del Valle, Caroline Andridge, and I had taken a deep dive into a program that covers ten of the world’s leading food and beverage companies on a comprehensive list of their social and environmental policies worldwide. The orientation week at Oxfam’s Boston office then brought our team together for one week to synthesize our work before we each parted for different research locations across the globe: Ghana, India, and Malawi, respectively. Now it was becoming real; I had six short weeks to gather as much information as possible to understand land rights and governance issues in Malawi to help the campaign.

Coming from a developing country myself, I’ve seen first hand the myopic development programs that are often administered by well-intentioned but oblivious foreigners. The Keough School of Global Affairs has further sensitized me to the perils of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘symptom targeting’ in the context of international development. Considering Malawi’s GDP is one of the lowest in the world and is heavily reliant on foreign aid, I wanted to ensure that I did not become one of those foreigners here.

A SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY IN MALAWI

Villagers participating in the awareness campaign

I’m glad to say that my first week in Lilongwe allayed all of these concerns. Instead of seeing a frail state swarming with foreigners trying to fill the vacuum, I saw that most of the development work on the ground was being carried out by Malawians themselves. I happen to be the only foreigner in the Oxfam office here (maybe the whole block!). Furthermore, the members of civil society and government officials I’ve met with recognize the aid dependency problem.

At one of the workshops on women and land rights issues, the participants unanimously agreed that Malawi must develop independently from the ‘mzungus’ (foreigners) aid programs. The sentiment of self-reliance reverberates in government policies and the national character, as well. I’ve seen many public sponsored billboards here promoting local produce and industry and have found the supermarket shelves stocked with local brands. I usually judge countries by the way they drive. The spirit of community can be seen very well on the roads of Malawi where each driver displays the utmost patience, even in rush hour traffic, and pedestrian crossings are taken seriously, even on the most remote roads.

Needless to say, I was delighted to see the inclusive and horizontal approach to development, which we’ve learned as part of the Sustainable Development concentration at the Keough School of Global Affairs, being applied where it’s needed most.

STORIES OF DISPLACEMENT

Land has been a contentious issue in Malawi. As a British Protectorate, the British land laws were superimposed on the existing customary laws of the land. This created a dichotomy of land law, and land use loopholes, which have often been exploited by investors, corporations and corrupt officials to grab vast swathes of land—often displacing the indigenous populations and disturbing livelihoods. I’m traveling to these plantations and meeting with the affected communities, government representatives and civil society representatives; I will gather information to assess the state of land policy commitments made by the world’s leading food and beverage companies here.

Development
A village right outside Lilongwe, where the local women gather to get water.

Last week, I traveled to the Mulanje district to the south of Malawi to meet with a community displaced by a tea estate. The village was a quiet place surrounded by iridescent green tea plants with a stunning view of Mt Mulanje. The people, with their broad smiles and hospitality, reminded me that I was in the warm heart of Africa. While the lush landscapes, jolly people and slow pace of life seemed very charming to me, my focus group discussion with the community revealed that this tranquility belies the heart-breaking stories of displacement and the historic injustices committed against these people. The villagers revealed how they had been driven out of their own land and were now faced with food insecurity because of the lack of cultivable land in the face of a growing population.

Civil society organizations, like Oxfam, have been partnering with the government and corporations to introduce laws that formalize land rights for ‘customary land holders’ like the villagers I met. Almost two decades of effort has culminated in the recent passage of the Customary Land Act, which provides villagers like the Mulanje a mechanism to register and exercise authority over their land. The representative from the Ministry of Land explained to me that this has been a huge milestone for Malawi that will effectively close the loophole allowing corporations to exploit these communities. The civil society organizations here widely celebrated the passage of the law, but also acknowledge the fact that the law will only yield results if the communities and corporations are aware of its provisions; hence, organizations like Oxfam are shifting gears from activism to awareness, monitoring and evaluation.

This has been a truly humbling experience for me, and the people of Malawi have reaffirmed my belief in organic and inclusive growth. I’m very grateful to be here and participate in the Oxfam campaign. I look forward to reconvening in Washington, D.C., where we will discuss our collective experiences and findings from Malawi, India, and Ghana.

Exploring Otherness in Delhi: Tracing sugar and self

by: Caroline Andridge

“A girl here to see you, ma’am, from Outside India.”

This Hindi whisper introduced me to my supervisor at Oxfam India, and ultimately, to my first week here in New Delhi. This sense of otherness—expressed both by the “outside” designation that my fair skin and reddish hair make obvious, and my inability to understand the local language—is constant.

Though I’ve lived and traveled abroad alone before, Delhi presents an entirely new and overwhelming landscape for me. The sights and sounds and smells are constant and pervasive. Rickshaws, motorbikes, and compact cars zoom past me without seatbelts or more than the occasional nod to traffic rules. I weave between dogs and hurried strangers on my way to and from the metro for work every day, feigning a confidence and sense of direction I do not actually feel. As an American with only the cultural knowledge I researched in preparation for this position, I am out of place.

Though scary, this otherness also presents a chance to continue an exploration of self, privilege, and positionality that I’ve been struggling with for the past several years. Development work has historically involved using outside money and staff to “help” a community in another country. Of course, this paternal arrangement raises complex and valid questions. Why should outsiders take jobs in place of local citizens? How can a foreign organization know the needs of the community more than the community themselves? What is our right, basically, to enter these communities, assert our Otherness, and take positions and decisions that the community members themselves are capable of fulfilling?

UNDERSTANDING DEVELOPMENT THROUGH A NEW LENS

The Keough School of Global Affairs’ concentration in Sustainable Development, and this i-Lab project in particular, recognizes these questions and attempts to find a new path for development. Rather than the prescriptive and vertical relationships traditionally found in development, the field is moving toward a more inclusive and horizontal approach. Local organizations hire local staff to fulfill the project mandate, and use insight from various organizations to uncover the pressing problems and culturally appropriate responses to them. While there’s still much work to be done in this transition, the early progress is promising.

TRANSLATING LOCAL INSIGHT TO GLOBAL IMPACT

My experiences in the Master of Global Affairs program and the Keough School i-Lab has helped me find my own role within this shifting development paradigm.

Table Workspace

I am working with Oxfam, together with fellow Master of Global Affairs students Sofía del Valle and Moaz Uddin, to support their Behind the Brands (BtB) campaign—a global effort to hold the top 10 food and beverage companies responsible for their supply chains, environmental impact, and worker treatment. Eight of the 10 largest companies are American, and all profoundly impact the countries where they source their ingredients. The BtB campaign works with these companies to improve their business practices in areas like improved farmer treatment, water stewardship, and respect for land rights. Our team is working with Oxfam America, Oxfam India, Oxfam Ghana, and Oxfam Malawi to support the implementation phase of this campaign.

I am working with Oxfam India. India is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane in the world and a major source country for The Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo. I will be traveling to sugarcane plantations with Oxfam India staff to speak with sugar farmers about their treatment by and experience with these companies. This information will help us understand the actions the companies have already taken, and where they need to do more.

To me, this project is a great example of the shifting development scheme. Oxfam America works in tandem with local staff at Oxfam India, Oxfam Malawi, and Oxfam Ghana to work directly with the farmers that produce the sugar, cocoa, and other commodities upon which these companies so heavily rely. By engaging U.S. companies and holding them accountable to higher standards, I feel encouraged to connect my U.S. nationality and related privilege with sustainable development work. Taking responsibility for the impact that American consumerism and lifestyle has on other countries is humbling and necessary.

In just a few months, I will regroup in Washington, DC, with my Keough School teammates. I’m excited to share our experiences—both good and bad—and hear about the impressions of Ghana, Malawi, and India from diversely Chilean, Pakistani, and American perspectives. This project has offered a new way to think of my responsibility and positionality as an American. I’m grateful for and challenged by the opportunity.