Urban Harvest: Cocoa in Accra

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A few weeks ago, I learned that there is a cocoa tree at Guinness Ghana here in Accra, where my partner works. While I am living in Ghana, I am making the most of new research opportunities, and here was an unexpected one: What would it be like to harvest and process my own cocoa? Here is the story so far …

IMG_0102The tree sits right next to the parking lot—note the truck packed with orange crates of Guinness in the background! It’s in front of the staff clinic, and I asked the clinic manager, Anne, if anyone tended it or harvested the fruit. She said no. As you can see, it’s quite feral and has no shade trees for company.

IMG_0189Still, it was bearing fruit, with more to come—see the bunches of white flowers, some of which will mature into cocoa pods.

IMG_0130The first step was to harvest the pods. For those that grow high up on the trees, farmers use a pole with a blade or hook on the end. There happened to be a pole nearby, so I used that. But it was made of plastic and had no hook, so I  had to ram the end of the pole into a pod stem over and over until it fell off and rolled across the brick patio.

Version 2Using the bendy pole wasn’t the easiest harvest method, so I began plucking pods from trunk, where I could reach them. My driver, Stanley, grew up in a cocoa farming area, and helped me with the harvest.

IMG_0139After ten or fifteen minutes, my shopping basket was full of cocoa pods.

IMG_0148Typically, farmers in Ghana leave harvested pods in a pile until family and neighbors can help crack them open and scoop out the seeds, often on a Saturday. I piled my pods on a chair on the balcony at home and planned to break them open on the weekend, when my partner could help. I was full of enthusiasm to begin and had high hopes for the final product already. I imagined that, once fermented and dried, the beans would be plump and flavorful, maybe with a hint of Guinness from the brewery. On an Instagram post, I ambitiously asked for brand name suggestions. Thoughtful friends and family gave creative responses, including “chocodocolate” (natalievanwykartist), “from beer to bean” (avcrofts), and “doc chocolate” (profseanoconnor).

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When we sat down to begin, I had my first revelation: though I have observed every step of cocoa harvest and processing, some of them many times, I didn’t actually know that process. Other languages, including French and Spanish, have different versions of the verb “to know” that distinguish between knowing a person, knowing information, or knowing how to do something. The best we can do in English is to talk about “knowing that” versus “knowing how.”

For example, I know that after harvesting cocoa pods, which are thick and sturdy, farmers often use a machete to break them open. We didn’t have a machete, so I got out a kitchen cleaver, the big one that we use for slicing butternut squash. As I sat there with a pod in one hand and the cleaver in the other, I immediately understood that I did not know the how. It seemed similar to whacking a knife into an avocado stone to extract it. But the cocoa pod was larger, and I had to use a more fearsome knife with more force. It was terrifying to imagine bringing the blade smashing down on the pod. What if I missed? I could easily slice off part of my hand or make a deep cut.

It was too scary to do, so I placed the pod on the balcony and chopped at it with the cleaver. It sometimes took a few tries to make a cut that was deep enough. I then dug my fingers into the cut and wrested the pod apart. It was not an efficient method, and certainly I was not nearly fast enough to operate on a commercial scale. Farmers have to learn how to break open many pods quickly, even if the methods are scary or dangerous.

IMG_0174My partner and I took turns breaking pods and scooping out seeds. Some of them looked like they had worms crawling out of them, but after a moment I realized that those seeds had germinated. Of course, I knew that cocoa seeds might germinate, but I had no idea if or how that would impact the rest of the process. Would germinated seeds ferment? If they did, would they be usable for making chocolate? Wondering about these questions also made me realize that I had harvested the pods without any thought of whether they were ripe—or over-ripe. I could tell you that pods often change color as they ripen, from green to yellow or orange, but some stay green. I did not know how to tell if the ones on the Guinness tree were ready for harvest.

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I decided that the safest thing would be to separate the evidently germinated seeds into their own pile. I organized the seeds on a bed of plantain leaves, as I have seen farmers do, and covered them with another layer of waxy fronds. This is called the heap method of fermentation and is common here in Ghana.

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I wasn’t sure how messy the process would be, so I laid the whole thing on top of a plastic bag to protect the balcony from being stained. I added a couple of dead potted plants as weights, so that the pile would not blow open in the sometimes-strong breezes.

IMG_0199Then I had to travel to the UK for a week. I asked my partner to make us a drying table while I was away, and there was a beautiful one waiting for me when I returned. It was too late at night to transfer my beans, so I put an almond on it to judge the scale and prepared to go out in the morning and start the drying process.

IMG_0201My fermentation heap didn’t look at all as I expected. The plantain leaves had dried and shriveled, and I could see some filthy-looking beans spilling out from one side. When we first got the plantain leaves, I had left them on the balcony overnight. When we went out the next day to crack open the pods, I lifted a frond and a giant cockroach scuttled out. I imagined that the environment of the heap had only become more resource-rich for roaches, and prepared myself for dozens to run out when I lifted up the leaves.

IMG_0203Well, let me tell you, those beans were so disgusting that not even the cockroaches wanted them! They had gotten terribly molded, and they certainly did not look like any fermented beans I’d seen before. I couldn’t bear to touch them, so I put on food prep gloves to transfer handfuls to the drying mat, trying not to breathe in the mold.

IMG_0206I had been posting pictures of the process on Instagram. When I put up these images, I received an email almost immediately from my friend Steve DeVries, who is a craft chocolate maker and expert in the bean to bar process. He sounded horrified, and sent me references for a half dozen books on cocoa fermentation. Steve wasn’t the only one to be put off. I sat in my living room and watched morosely as a crow alighted on the balcony railing, glanced at the beans, and flew away. No one was interested in my cocoa.

IMG_0208I still had a shred of optimism that the beans could be saved, though, so I moved the drying mat into the sunshine. They stayed there for more than a week, and I can’t say they improved. I went out one day to stare at them during a writing break, and realized that, while working on a report on Liberia’s cocoa market, I had addressed the challenge of beans going moldy during the rainy season (which is now), if evacuation trucks get stalled on the road. Compared to someone who farms cocoa for a living, I’d done an infinitesimal amount of labor, and I still felt sorrow and frustration at seeing my cocoa spoiled and unusable. How had I typed so dispassionately that beans going moldy was “especially a problem during the rainy season”? What did I know of beans going moldy, until it happened to my harvest? It was repulsive, viscerally so, to see a food I had tended be taken over by another organism.

IMG_E0214I had had a similar realization once before: that as much as I might know about cocoa processing, I lack how knowledge. When I was in Seattle teaching at UW last year, I stopped on my way home from campus one evening at the Chocolate Man shop to take one of Bill Fredericks’s tempering classes. For the first hour, I listened as Bill explained and demonstrated the different tempering methods. I understood everything he was saying; I’d written about the process myself in Cocoa.

But as soon as Bill handed me a bowl and spatula, I realized that I had neither intuition nor a mental map of what was supposed to happen next. I mean, the only thing I had to do was stir the melted chocolate. But of course it is more than that: it’s just knowing that you are doing it right, that the crystallization is happening and the cocoa butter molecules are lining up in their strongest form. As basic as the task was—stirring—I did not know how. I gave it a few half-attempts, and then turned myself to the unnecessary task of cleaning dried chocolate off of equipment and working surfaces for the rest of the evening.

I haven’t returned to hand tempering since, but with this home cocoa processing, I will try again. After all these years researching and writing about cocoa and chocolate, there is so much that I just do not know, and cannot know until I experience it myself—and much of that, I will likely never experience. Having just published a book about the politics of cocoa, from farm to factory to taste, it was stunning to realize that. I have put my whole heart into understanding cocoa through research and writing, but I will do my best now to try out other ways. My next opportunity will be light crop, which happens here in July and August. I will return to the Guinness Ghana cocoa tree then, and see what more I can learn.

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Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part I

As a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, it is not often that I get involved on the trading side. But since early last year, I have been working with the UK-based organization Twin & Twin Trading, whose vision is development through trade, facilitating specialty chocolate market access for cocoa farmer associations in Africa. That means I help farmer groups to promote and sell their cocoa to specialty buyers—who may be paying premium prices for quality, and who may make these farmer groups visible to chocolate shoppers by putting their names on single origin bars.

Apart from Madagascar bars, it is relatively rare in the US to find specialty, single origin chocolate that uses African cocoa, at least compared with bars that use cocoa from Central or South America, or the Caribbean. I started writing about the invisibility of West African cocoa in premium chocolate some years ago; little did I think at the time that I would be part of a team helping to promote the region to specialty buyers.

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Gola’s warehouse manager, Vandi, scoops up a handful of cocoa beans to assess them

But one container at a time, that’s what we have been doing, starting with Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations in Sierra Leone. With assistance from Twin and other partners, farmers in four chiefdoms on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park have organized into three associations to sell their cocoa: Malema chiefdom, Gaura chiefdom, and Tunkia and Koya chiefdoms, which, being a bit smaller than the others, joined together to sell their cocoa. Together, these farmer associations are working to conserve the Gola Rainforest, which is home to many threatened and endemic species, including the elusive pygmy hippo, and to strengthen their cocoa business practices.

Twin and its partners in Sierra Leone have been working for several years with these farmer associations to provide agricultural training, and to support best practices around cocoa harvest, fermentation, drying, and storage. My role has involved building capacity for farmer associations and the Gola staff around marketing, so that they can strategize from an informed position when negotiating with buyers.

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Vandi with bags of cocoa at the warehouse awaiting shipment

When I started this work, bags of cocoa were sitting in the Gola warehouse in Kenema. Knowing we had superior quality cocoa and a unique opportunity to launch Sierra Leone onto the specialty cocoa map, we aimed high—the first container, the team agreed, should be pitched to the US craft market. To the best of our knowledge, no craft maker in the US had produced a single origin specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone before. As confident as I felt in the cocoa, though, I wasn’t sure if any of them would be willing to consider it. In my work over the past fifteen years, I have found that, apart from a very few exceptions (such as John Kehoe and Gary Guittard at Guittard Chocolate, or the folks at Tcho Chocolate), people are generally dismissive, wary, or simply uninterested in West African cocoa for any kind of premium product.

But some people in the chocolate industry are starting to think—and act—differently when it comes to African origins, and especially West Africa. In our conversations about Gola cocoa, these individuals spoke with humility, recognizing that they had a lot to learn about West Africa’s vast cocoa farming systems, and they were eager to begin. Among them were Greg D’Alesandre, who sources for Dandelion Chocolate, and Gino Dalla Gasperina, who founded Meridian Cacao Company. I had a lot to learn from them, too—and all of us had something to learn from the people growing the cocoa and the Gola staff who work with those farmers. Greg and Gino decided to visit Sierra Leone, to see the farms, learn about the  trainings, and discuss priorities and visions with the Gola team, as buyers and sellers of cocoa.

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Photo with Greg (Dandelion Chocolate), Gino (Meridian Cacao), and the Gola team, on the wall at the Gola Rainforest Lalehun research center, where we held the season review last week

And then Greg made the decision to buy the cocoa, which meant Dandelion would make the first ever Gola Rainforest Chocolate bar! Will you forgive me for saying how very proud I am, how even now I have tears and goosebumps, remembering the collective effort it took, and from my gratitude to everyone for working with such dedication and tirelessness, such faith in Gola cocoa? So many people gave this their all, from the cocoa farmers through the Gola buying officers, the agricultural extension team at Jula Consultancy, the trading team at Twin, and right up to Ron Sweetser at Dandelion, who developed the profile for the bar—and, by doing so with enormous care and love, showed everyone just what Sierra Leone Gola Rainforest cocoa can do as a single origin craft chocolate bar.

I will leave it to others to give their assessment of the chocolate, as my own (five star) review of the (most profoundly chocolate) bar (I have ever tasted) will necessarily sound biased at this point. But if you are one of those people who likes chocolate, I do think the Gola Rainforest bar might be one that pleases you (so much that you buy out all the stock in your local shop and eat it for breakfast and create fashion accessories out of the wrappers).

Greg and the team at Dandelion took the first opportunity to share the chocolate with the women and men who had grown the cocoa. The three Gola Rainforest cocoa farmer associations held their season review last week, and I traveled to Sierra Leone to participate. Part of the work was to celebrate the successes of last season, and part of it was to strategize for the coming season. For this, I led a session on chocolate markets, outlining the different categories of chocolate and what advantages and disadvantages there would be to selling into each value chain.

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Presenting to Gola cocoa farmer associations, while business manager Yambasu translates into Mende; photo by Felicity Butler

We talked too about the relationship between Gola and Dandelion, and with other potential buyers, and what they had discussed with Greg and Gino when they visited. I showed maps to chart the journey the Gola cocoa had taken once it left Sierra Leone, and photos of Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory, so that the farmers could see where it was manufactured into chocolate.

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Showing where the Gola Rainforest bar is for sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street factory; photo by Felicity Butler
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Photos showing farmers their chocolate bar on sale at Dandelion’s Valencia Street shop
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Admiring the Dandelion Chocolate bar wrapper, which says “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone”; photo by Felicity Butler

Staff members had taken turns translating my talk into Mende. But when I said that theirs was the first specialty chocolate bar from Sierra Leone in the US craft market, no translation was needed—the cheers and smiles were immediate!

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Celebrating Gola’s success at the season review meeting; photo by Björn Horvath

 

Then it was time to share the Dandelion Gola Rainforest chocolate bar.

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Dandelion Gola Rainforest Chocolate! Photo by Felicity Butler
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Aminata, Supervisor of Cocoa Extension Team & Gender Coordinator for Gola, shares Dandelion’s Gola chocolate with her colleague Janneh; photo by Felicity Butler
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Mohamed Fofanah, Managing Director of Jula Consultancy, tastes Dandelion chocolate; photo by Björn Horvath

So much of my teaching, research, and writing has been about the negative stereotypes that persist about Africa, and how these damage or undermine so many possibilities for real, material change. Superior cocoa grows in Sierra Leone, and farmers work hard to cultivate and process it. It is not easy to swim against the tide of negative stories about Sierra Leone and indeed all of West Africa. But this is necessary work.

Do the people who work so hard every day to grow excellent cocoa, and who buy and haul and store it, who steward it until it sails away on a container ship—do they not deserve to have their experiences, their labor, their cocoa recognized and esteemed? We all want to be seen, and for our work to be valued.

I think that even more than when they tasted the chocolate, when the farmers, buying officers, and agricultural extension staff saw the words “Gola Rainforest, Sierra Leone” on the Dandelion bar wrapper, they felt what they had achieved. I saw people’s faces light up with pride. I hope that there is more of the same to come.

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Madame Jebbe, Women’s Leader of the Gaura Cocoa Farmers’ Association; photo by Felicity Butler

It is my privilege and joy to work with the farmers and association executives in Gaura, Malema, Tunkia, and Koya chiefdoms; with the staff (especially Björn Horvath and Katie Sims in Kenema) at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked for decades to conserve and protect the Gola Rainforest and whose idea it was to start a cocoa business in the forest edge communities in the first place; my excellent colleagues at Twin & Twin Trading (especially Hannah Davis, who managed Twin’s contributions from the start, and Deborah Bickler, who kept us all going); Gino at Meridian Cacao, who has been generously helping to build capacity and cocoa expertise for both Twin and Gola; and, of course, Greg and the team at Dandelion Chocolate. Thank you for bringing Gola Rainforest Chocolate into the world.

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Team members from Twin & Gola, looking forward to the future of Gola Rainforest Cocoa!