Tuesday, May 29, Sekyerekrobo, Ghana

The waves crashed throughout the night, and several delegates mentioned they heard the thunderstorms ranting at the earth. This delegate, however, slept soundly, awakened only by my trusty Timex watch alarm. Once again, it was an early start, the buses scheduled to leave at 7:30 .

The group has been running 15 to 20 minutes late and today wasn't any different. I was both curious and excited to catch a glimpse of my first cocoa farms, as well as the Farmer Field Schools, which are sponsored by USAID and the cocoa/chocolate industry.

The two-hour or so drive to Sekyerekroho village brought us to the main cocoa-growing region in eastern Ghana . Here, we saw rural Ghana as it is, lush yet poor; vibrant but still vulnerable.

As the two buses rumbled through the village, we certainly attracted attention, villagers young and old waving at us. Getting off the bus, we then proceeded to get into a mix of sports utility vehicles, which took us through some really thick brush in a bumpy off-road ride.

Arriving at a small clearing, we disembarked and walked several hundred feet through cocoa trees to see a re-enactment of the Farmer Field School session as well as to visit Mary, who owned a 3-hectacre cocoa farm.
In the center of her farm, amidst cocoa trees in various stages of development, Isaac Gyamfi, Ghana Country Manager for the STCP/IITA, translated for the delegates as one of the trainers ran through a typical program.

Mary, who appeared to be in her late 40s/early 50s (I could be way off on this), explained that she had five children, all of which were going to school. She had inherited the farm from her grandmother and embraced the Farmer Field School program as a way of increasing yields on the farm. Typically she would harvest three bags, about 200 kilos of cocoa beans.

Feisty and forward-looking, Mary quickly came to realize that the participatory program fostered by the Farmer Field School worked, at times increasing yields by 25-30% through an ongoing process of monitoring, pruning, weeding, fertilization and proper fermentation.

The trainer then split the 18 or so farmers in attendance into three groups. Each group had a team leader who took the farmers to inspect five trees, diligently noting how many pods there were on the tree, what kind of insects were spotted, checking to see if there were any diseased pods on the tree and whether the tree needed weeding.

After making their inspections, the data from the three crops was collected and compared against cocoa trees that were not undergoing Farmer Field School practices. It became obvious to farmers and visitors alike who's getting more cash from their cash crop.

There's much more to the program than this blog records (watch for a comprehensive overview of the trip in a coming issue), but I just wanted to get my first impressions as quickly as I could (conditions making writing and transmitting a more formidable task than I imagined).

After the school re-enactment, we wandered off a few yards to see how beans were being fermented. A small pile of cocoa beans had been sitting under banana leaves for three days, and now was the time to mix them up and recover them for another three days.

As Gyamfi said, “It gets hot enough during the fermentation process that you can put in an egg inside the beans and after three days, it's cooked.”

Could be, but when I went to touch the beans they didn't seem THAT warm. Of course, after being in Ghana a few days, nothing is really hot any more.

Oh, a quick vignette before I close this section (there's another part coming, but time constraints have forced me to write it later). As I walked toward the fermentation pile, I had brushed against a cocoa tree, one that had a nest of red ants on it. Next thing I knew, there's something, many things crawling on my neck.

As other delegates told me later, several locals were quickly brushing them off. Gyami asked me to unbutton my shirt a bit so that he could check my neck. As he told me then, it would be really bad if they got inside my shirt.
Luckily, the Ghanaians came to my rescue. I've got to close now, but there's more to the day, such as the village reception and visits to the cocoa depots. And I need to scratch my neck.

After watching one of the farmers cover up the fermenting cocoa bean pile, we began our trek back to the sports utility vehicles, and slowly drove back into the village. Once there, we walked into a central compound, which featured an open square surrounded by a canopied seating area.

It looked as if the whole village had come out, many in their Sunday best. Certainly, the village chief and his group of elders and counselors dressed in traditional garb looked very regal. Several men, caught up in the beat of the drums, ventured out in the open area, dancing with flags and even a carbine (it didn't appear loaded and the two dancers seemed to be performing a hunting scene. Of course, they could have just been having a bit of fun.)

Following an explanation and an introduction by Issac Gyamfi, Ghana Country Manager for the Sustainable Tree Crops Program/International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Bill Guyton president of the World Cocoa Foundation, thanked the chief for allowing the group to visit and answered the standard Ghanaian question, “What's your mission for coming here?”

I don't recall exactly what Guyton said, but it undoubtedly touched promoting good cocoa growing practices among farmers, emphasizing the importance of education for children while simultaneously eradicating the worse forms of child labor, and pitching in wherever the cocoa and chocolate industry can. The chief nodded his head in approval, when Jonathan Atwood, senior director, global issues management, Kraft Foods, provided him with two bottles of “schnapps.”

As I found out later, it's customary to present schnapps to the village chiefs during all visits as a way of facilitating a good meeting. All of the members then proceeded to shake the hands of the chief and his crew and then sat down for a brief exchange of pleasantries. In the end, villagers came by and skillfully lopped of the tops of coconuts and pass them out to us to drink.

That's when the party started to crank up a bit, with the drums amplifying their tempo and the entire delegation doing a bit of a “conga dance” around the open area as we bopped our way out of the gathering place.

As we pulled away, everyone was still enjoying a “feel good” aura, the delegates waving to young and old villagers. Extremely cool. Nice to be treated with such hospitality from folks that don't really have all the comforts we take for granted. Note to self: Some of the best things to give away, such as a genuine warm welcome, are free.

Now the fun begins. In a brief consultation with the drivers, leaders of the group decided to take a “short cut.” Instead of doubling back to the hotel to get to the main road, the WCF delegation opted for more direct country roads.

I got to tell you, the countryside was beautiful, the villagers friendly and waving, and the roads just short of non-existent. Those of us in the back of the bus enjoined weightlessness every now and then, prompting Arto Almer, purchasing director from Cloetta Fazer, to dub the excursion the “Shaken not Stirred” bus ride. As we approached New Edubiase, Bill Guyton – pressured by Atwood to stop the bus and allow the group determined “to stretch one's legs” -- did so in a remote area, next to an uncompleted cinder-block home. The open-air jungle pit stop eliminated nearly everyone's “Depends” anxiety and we set forth again.

The dirt road eventually gave way to pavement, although we proceeded to make a wrong turn. Upon doubling back and then seemingly making the correct turn, the Good Shephrd bus (the vehicle was leased from a Methodist curch) found itself in the middle of the town, New Edubiase, but not by the Olam cocoa shed.

The mixup almost turned comedic when we encountered the first bus along the road going in the opposite direction (Passengers there also needed to make a pit stop, but they opted to seek out facilities. Eventual comparison between the two stops determined that the open-air site was actually more pleasant.)

At long last, the buses pulled into the Olam Ghana Ltd. cocoa shed about four p.m. As the largest licensed buying company approved by the Ghana Cocoa Board (and there are several), Olam has hundreds of purchasing clerks directly buying cocoa from the farmers within a 20-25 kilometer radius. All in all, the company has 140 depots that collect beans from 6,000 farmers.

But before the visit commenced, the delegation zeroed in on the pickup truck, which had brought boxed lunches from the hotel. A hungry tour group is an inattentive one, and organizers recognized the beast had to be fed, since breakfast and food had become distant memories.

Olam's representative provided a brief overview of what happens when the beans are offloaded. Again, labors stacked the 140-lb. jute bags on their heads and walked them up the steps into the warehouse.

There, the quality control employee tests each bag for moisture, using an instrument called “Aqua Boy.” Any beans that register over 10% moisture content are rejected, returned for additional drying.

QA personnel then conducted a bean count based on a 100-gram portion. Bags that produce between 101-120 beans are marked with an H, 121=150, with an I, and so on. There are five categories, the smaller beans typically used for domestic use in Ghana and/or non-chocolate industries, such as cosmetics and soaps.

From there, we returned onto the bus and paid a visit to Armajaro Ghana Ltd., also a licensed buying company. Pascal Bouvery, managing director for Armajaro, make a few brief remarks and then quickly turned over the tour and presentation to the depot manager.

Modestus Ametewee, franchise holder for the Armajaro New Edibase district, demonstrated very similar processes seen at Olam with one exception, the Armajaro depot had a sieve to size the beans. The depot also housed a store, which allowed farmers to purchase items such as cutlasses, pesticides, tin roof segments, detergents, etc. at slightly above cost.

As it was getting dark, the group concluded its visit and wearily boarded the buses for Kumasi and the Miklin Hotel. Tomorrow, a visit with a king, and an opportunity to see students at St. Joseph's Teacher's College and women making soap from cocoa pods.