Chocolate Nations

Among the Aztecs chocolate was known as the food of the gods and the cocoa beans that produced it were used as currency. In West Africa, where the cocoa tree was introduced in the late 19th century, few of the two million farmers who grow the crop ever bite into a chocolate bar yet the beans they produce are found in most of the world’s chocolate.  But most of them are dirt poor, making just enough money to make ends meet – and that’s when cocoa prices are high.

In her book Chocolate Nations, Orla Ryan explains why this is so, describing how the business of producing artery-thickening Mars bars and the like for the western sweet tooth is shaped by domestic and international politics. Ryan is a former Reuters commodities reporter in Ghana but if you’re expecting a dry account straight from the pages of the financial press, you’d be wrong. This is the human story of an industry controlled by a handful of food conglomerates, its struggling smallholders, child labourers and hard-nosed technocrats.

Ryan focuses on two countries whose recent histories have been shaped by the golden pod – Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, and Ghana, which ranks second.  In newly independent Ghana, cocoa revenues were central to Kwame Nkrumah’s plan to industrialise the nation. In Cote d’Ivoire farmland was freely given over to migrants from the north of the country and neighbouring nations as part of a green revolution.

The former French colony prospered and became a haven of stability. In the late 1980s high cocoa prices began to slide and the government decided to slash payments to cocoa farmers to balance the books. Migrants became a source of resentment and many were driven off their farms and even murdered.  Civil war broke out in 2002-03 and the subsequent peace has been fragile.

In Ghana a national cocoa board controls exports and, on average, offers its producers better returns. Some farmers have been involved in Fair Trade, growing beans for the UK’s Divine brand of chocolate. But they are no more protected from price movements in the market or damage to their crop from disease and poor weather than their colleagues.

At the moment, cocoa farmers have one thing in their favour – demand for chocolate in the west is currently outstripping supply. Our Crème Eggs and Dairy Milks now cost a lot more than they did last year and some of big manufacturers are looking into ways of improving the farmer’s lot as a way of boosting production to avoid complete chocolate meltdown.

Published: January 13, 2011

Chocolate Nations

Orla Ryan

Zed Books

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