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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A researcher’s thanks to Divine Chocolate

This past Valentine’s weekend, I enjoyed a brief visit to London. For a trip that was short on time, it was profound for me as a researcher. In the midst now of writing the volume Cocoa for the Polity Press Resources series, I am thinking too of the fact that the few words of thanks that appear in every book’s “Acknowledgements” section never do justice to the contributions of those thanked individuals. So it’s nice to have a blog, where I can say “thank you” in at least a few more words.

My meeting this past week with Sophi Tranchell (Managing Director) and Charlotte Borger (Communications Director) at Divine Chocolate was inspirational, thought-provoking, and a true pleasure. While incredibly helpful for my current research, I realized that our conversation built upon a much longer history of support and encouragement from Divine in my work, which has shaped me as a scholar.

My first encounter with the company was as a doctoral candidate. In 2005, I spent a year in the field, moving slowly westward from Seattle, through Asia-Pacific growing regions and Asian and Middle Eastern consumer hotspots, until I reached my main research area: Ghana. One of my goals there was to conduct fieldwork with Kuapa Kokoo, the Fairtrade-certified cooperative, which supplies cocoa for Divine Chocolate.

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From the Divine USA website: Welcome to chocolate!

My years of preparation as a PhD student had provided an idea of what research would entail. I spent months developing survey tools, having those vetted by professors and the UW Human Subjects committee, and double checking my hypotheses against those of learned scholars. My committee members—the professors who guided me through my PhD—had all talked me through the process multiple times, encouraging me to be open to challenges as well as discoveries. But I had to live that myself before I could recognize the wisdom of what they were saying.

I can’t remember exactly what was going through my mind at the time, and perhaps I have blocked out the more embarrassing details of my “green-ness” as a researcher. But I know I imagined that research would be simply there for the taking. That farmers would be ready, able, and willing to share their expertise and experiences with me, a stranger who wanted to understand and write about their labor.

This was despite having spent years studying feminist and development studies critiques of “traditional” research protocols. These critiques make it plain that the scenario of a “knowledge producer” arriving in a foreign context and immediately comprehending cultural, social, economic, and political norms well enough to conduct meaningful inquiry was, frankly, delusional.

While intellectually I understood that, it didn’t always guide my expectations when it came to getting the work done. Though I had lived in West Africa prior to my doctoral fieldwork, I’d barely been on a farm. My ideas about what I would find in Ghana’s cocoa industry had almost no basis in lived experience. This is all a long way of saying that when I turned up in Ghana, I had little idea how to proceed.

It turns out that research requires help. I needed to find people who were immersed in Ghana and in cocoa, and who were not just able but willing to provide assistance. This assistance was basically everything, from trucks to drive around in, to cultural interpreters who could explain to me what I was seeing in the field. I realized this (almost) right away, and set out to find such help. Happily, I did find it, and one of the first people to open a door for me was Sophi Tranchell.

One moment I do remember distinctly: sitting in a sodden, flooded guesthouse room in Kumasi after a heavy rain, talking on my cellphone to Sophi in London. She talked through my research questions with me, offered critiques and advice, and suggested other resources that would help me understand the environment I was in. It was my first conversation after arriving in Ghana that gave me hope I might actually be able to complete my project. It laid the first stone on a path that I finally realized I had to pave myself: the road to research was not ready-made and waiting for me to walk down it. Crucially, Sophi also made the necessary introductions for me to Kuapa Kokoo, and from there, I was able to get properly to cocoa farms.

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A much younger me, happy to be researching at last, on a Kuapa Kokoo member farm
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Months later, with Afia, a cocoa farmer, after an enlightening discussion

We met in person when I arrived in London later that year, continuing my fieldwork in the chocolate consumer context of Britain. Sophi and I sat in the Divine conference room, as we did again this past Monday, talking through my research in Ghana. I noticed on the walls a series of advertisements for Divine Chocolate, featuring women farmers from Kuapa Kokoo. That turned out to be another watershed moment for me as a scholar of this industry. Captivated by the powerful images of women farmers holding pieces of chocolate in their hands, I asked Sophi to tell me more about them. I went on to write a chapter about those images in my dissertation, and in 2012 to publish an article about them in the Journal of African Cultural Studies. I have taught about those images in my classes too, for more than a decade now.

After earning my PhD, when I had become faculty at the University of Washington, I undertook another research project with Divine. This time, I studied the impacts of Fairtrade programs, especially women’s groups, among Kuapa Kokoo farmer societies. It was revelatory to return to the place where I had done my doctoral fieldwork. This time, I went to Ghana with a new preparedness: that of knowing that I did not know what I would find. It was indeed a strength to now be familiar—intimate, even—with my research context, having spent so much time there already; this helped me develop better research tools. But it was an even greater strength to recognize that I was there to learn. My return allowed me to see once again the power of humility, of letting the context shape my knowledge, rather than imposing my ideas upon it.

And now, my most recent research has once again benefited from the generosity and expertise of the people at Divine Chocolate. Sophi and Charlotte have vast knowledge of this industry, and are incredibly articulate of that knowledge. My conversation with them not only forwarded my understanding, it raised my expectations of myself for the book I am writing. In my nearly fifteen years of studying this industry, I am so grateful once again for the allies and guides who have pointed the way forward. So thank you, Divine.