Chapter Sixteen: Cacao cum Cocoa
from Africa’s Heart — The Journey Ends in Kansas coming in January 2015
by Mark Wentling
“He’s coming!” These words were shouted out loudly by the first sentinel posted at the junction of the village road with the main highway and they were rapidly passed on from one sentinel to another. In only a few minutes, the news reached the village. The drummers and gong-gong men swung into action, adding to the noisy spread of the news of the arrival of the USAID cocoa processing specialist. In less than ten minutes, the village welcoming committee was assembled at the entrance of the village to warmly welcome this specialist and escort him to Chief Letivi’s compound for his meeting with a select group. The excitement in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The people acted like they were welcoming a hero who would rescue them from their poverty.
The people were impressed by the large size of the car carrying the American specialist. They had never before seen a big US Chevrolet Suburban. When the car stopped in the village commons, it was immediately surrounded by drummers and dancers who did their best to demonstrate how happy the people were to see their very important visitors. They were glad to see that there were two white men instead of the one expected. The leader of the welcoming committee signaled to the elated crowd that they should make way for the visitors so they could pass and be properly greeted.
As the visitors approached those assigned to welcome them, a fetish priest stopped their forward progress in order to offer a blessing by asking the grandfathers to make their visit a good one. He finished his words by pouring a libation for the grandfathers on the ground in front of the two visitors. At that point, two young girls elaborately dressed in the traditional way and with heavy make-up, stepped up to the visitors to offer them a calabash of frothy-white, fresh palm wine. The visitors politely took turns taking small sips of the palm wine and handed the calabash to the girls.The leader of the group then formed a line of the dozen people in the welcoming committee so the two men could pass in front of them to shake hands and exchange greetings. After this initial welcome, the two men were asked to follow them to their chief’s house. As they slowly made their way up the gradual slope to Letivi’s compound, people lined each side of the wide path and waved and cheered. The men were very impressed with the lively reception they were receiving from hundreds of villagers. They felt like celebrities. If the intention was to imprint on them a first good impression, the village had already succeeded in making their visit a success.
Chiefs Letivi and Gyasi were dressed in their best traditional clothes. They stood in a chiefly manner in front of the royal compound to receive and greet their distinguished visitors. The chiefs vigorously welcomed the two white men and shook their hands with a tight grip as they knew was done in Europe. They invited the men to follow them inside the compound to the meeting room. As they entered, the twenty or so people stood and began clapping. The chiefs showed the men their two comfortable armchairs in front of the group and they took similar seats next to them. After they were seated, Letivi signaled to the group to sit down.
Nobody knew it, but Chief Letivi was struggling to stay poised and focused on the subject at hand. His mother’s dire situation and his discovery of the gold stool under the old baobab tree were weighing heavily on him. Letivi fought to clear his mind of these two serious concerns as he stood to welcome formally the two white men and commence the meeting with them. He first asked everyone in the room to stand individually and introduce themselves. When everyone had finished with their introductions, he introduced himself and asked Chief Gyasi to do the same. He then asked the two men to introduce themselves.
The first white man to talk was very tall and slightly bald with a protruding potbelly. He had a reddish complexion like other white men previously seen in the village. This ‘reddish’ skin made people think that white men were not really white, but that they were ‘red.’ He wore a long-sleeve white shirt with shiny snap buttons and Levi jeans. His leather belt was bigger than any ever seen before and it had a large buckle with designs engraved on it. The boots he wore were also unlike any seen before. The people could not possibly know that his dress was considered ‘old western’ in the United States.
This tall man stood up and bent his head to the left to avoid touching one of the lower crossbeams in the rafters holding up the straw roof. The local people, who were generally short in stature, had never seen a person so tall. The man appeared to them as a being from another world. This alien being spoke in an accent they had never heard before. With a pronounced twang in his voice, he said, “Thank you very much for your warm and much appreciated welcome. This is my first time to come to Africa and I have never been so warmly welcomed before. My name is Phil Mason. I have spent most of my life working in the cocoa processing industry. I am very happy to be here with you today. I hope that I can be of some help to you.”
Phil sat down and his very different looking colleague rose to introduce himself. This was a much younger, shorter and whiter man who looked like a teenager. He had long brown hair and a nervous tic that shook his hands about every two minutes. This odd looking man spoke in a low voice, “My name is Steve Morgan. I work at the USAID Mission office in Melomti. I came today to accompany Mr. Mason and take notes on the substance of your meeting. Your president has requested that we give priority to assisting you with the establishment of a cocoa processing plant. Therefore, this is an important component of the excellent bi-lateral relations we maintain with your country. In this first meeting, we need to take full advantage of Mr. Mason’s expertise, particularly as he will only be in the country for a few weeks. Thank you for the welcome and your attention.”
Letivi’s mind was dwelling on his problems, so he missed most of what Phil and Steve said. Gyasi nudged him slightly so he could know that it was now time again for him to intervene in this crucial meeting. Letivi stood and thanked the two men for their words and said, “Everyone here knows that the cultivation of cacao is the mainstay of our local economy and the source of most of our income. We have done all we know to increase cacao production, but this has not resulted in a sufficient increase in our incomes. We concluded that the only way to increase our incomes is to add value to our cacao production by processing our cacao beans here instead of having them shipped to Europe for processing. We are therefore counting on your help to set up a cacao bean processing plant here so we can produce cocoa powder. We are eager to hear what Mr. Mason has to say about all this. Mr. Mason, please enlighten us.”
Letivi sat down and the towering Phil stood up, cleared his voice before saying, “I want very much to help you, but you need to know that what you are asking is very complicated. I understand very well why you want a cacao processing plant, but establishing one is fraught with many challenges. I do not want to discourage you. All I want is that you accept that what you are asking requires resolving monumental issues.”
Hearing these words caused all present to fall into a deep silence. You could hear a pin drop. Every person in the group believed that their high hopes for establishing a processing plant had been dashed even before they understood why this had to be so. They waited for Phil to say more. They wanted to know why it would be so difficult to set up a modest processing plant. For them, this should not be so complicated.
Phil continued, “I am sure you know how many acres of cacao trees you collectively have and that the cacao beans you produce are of the high quality needed for processing. One thing I fear is that your combined production of cacao beans will not be enough to operate the processing plant continuously throughout the year. This is one thing we will need to study carefully.”
At that moment, Gregoire, the manager of the cacao planters association, raised his hand. He stood up and said, “Thank you Mr. Mason. I assure you that we have all the details about cacao beans harvested annually from our members and that they produce top quality beans. The average family farm size is about two acres and we have about four hundred families cultivating cacao trees. Our overall annual cacao bean production is nearly three hundred tons. Our beans are carefully fermented and dried before being placed in one-hundred pound jute bags for sale to traders who represent European companies.”
Phil reacted by saying, “That is all good information to have. I look forward to visiting some of your cacao fields. I assume that your average yields per acre on these small family farms are about three hundred and fifty pounds. I note that more efficient large-scale cacao plantations using the latest hybrid trees and modern inputs can obtain yields of over one thousand pounds per acre of top quality beans.”
This latter comment had heads spinning and some were asking themselves how they could also increase the yields of their cacao farms. The information they were receiving today was almost more than they could digest. Phil was not finished and continued with another thought, “One fear I have is that the processing of your total annual production of cacao beans would produce more cocoa powder than the national market could absorb. Even the smallest processing plant can probably produce in a few weeks more cocoa powder than is consumed in a few years in Kotoku. And, I am only talking about the production of Ataku and not the rest of the district. Moreover, the quality of the cocoa powder you produce would not be as good as the powder imported from Europe.”
These were very disquieting words for those assembled. They were having difficulty registering all the implications of what the specialist had just said. Before they could fully digest these words, Phil continued, “But, we can’t be certain about this until we have analyzed the market for cocoa powder. I am sure there must be much competition from imported cocoa powder.”
Those present believed they had thought of everything, but they had not given the slightest attention to the marketing of their cocoa powder. This was a new wrinkle for them. Already they could see that producing cocoa powder was much more complicated than they first believed.
Steve and Letivi were furiously jotting down notes in their respective notebooks. Steve knew he would have to draft and submit a full report to his ambassador after his return to his office in Melomti. Letivi knew he needed a good record of the meeting so he could call in his report to the president. While they were scribbling away, Phil continued, “I don’t think that in this first meeting I should burden you with too many details. Please let me outline a few key facts about what is entailed in setting up a cacao processing plant and keeping it functioning smoothly. I will try to focus on the main requirements, as these must be satisfied before working on the myriad of other details that are needed to complete a comprehensive feasibility study and a convincing business case.”
Everyone in the room mechanically nodded their heads in agreement. They were eager to hear what else Phil had to say. They could see that he was a real expert and possessed all the knowledge they needed. Phil continued his presentation at a quicker pace, saying, “I think it would be good if I walked you through the major steps required in processing cacao beans, so you have a good idea of what is involved.”
Phil lost no time in rapidly citing the following processing basics:
“The beans must arrive at the plant dried and in good condition. They will be roasted at a high temperature, winnowed and broken into nib pieces before being rolled hydraulically into cocoa butter and press cake. The former is used to make chocolate and the latter is crushed into cocoa powder. Before the press cake is crushed, it should be treated with an alkali chemical like potassium carbonate. The powder is then sealed inside attractive packages and marketed through a pre-established distribution system.
Most in attendance were struggling to understand what Phil was saying. Many were turning to those next to them to ask for the meaning of Phil’s words. Even the well-educated and super-intelligent Letivi was having trouble grasping all of Phil’s points. Phil’s brief exposé raised more questions than it answered.
At this point, Letivi felt compelled to intervene so that all the clarifications needed were provided. He wanted Phil to explain a few things so all could better understand what he had said. Letivi rose to say, “Thank you Mr. Mason for your instructive presentation. I know that many of us are in need of some clarifications before continuing our discussions. In this regard, I have a couple of questions. One question I have is how do you roast the beans? One other question I have for now is what do we do with the cocoa butter?
Phil thanked Letivi and said, “The mechanical roaster requires lots of natural gas to function. You would need to store on site a large quantity of propane gas for this essential part of the process. As for the cocoa butter, the best thing would be to collect it in metal barrels and export it to Europe.”
Letivi was beginning to see that there was much more to cacao processing that he or anyone else in the room could know. He was afraid that before Phil finished what he had to say to them there would be more revelations of unanticipated cacao processing challenges. He felt a knot of worry growing in his gut that they might be biting off more than they could chew. Before turning things back to Phil, he asked if anyone else had any questions.
One of the big producers of cacao raised his hand and asked, “Where will we acquire the material for packaging our cocoa powder?”
Phil quickly replied, “Very good question. I have found that in other countries where I have worked that packaging was what we call a ‘show-stopper.’ Unless you can obtain within your country the good quality small containers needed to package your powder, it will be too expensive to import such packaging material. This is something that needs to be investigated immediately.”
Perhaps the oldest man in attendance asked, “How do you run the plant? Doesn’t it require electricity? As you can see, we don’t have any electricity in our village.”
Phil said, “Of course. It is all powered by electricity. You must have a big generator with a good and reliable fuel supply or have access to the national electrical grid. Either way, access to dependable electricity is essential and this will be a major operational cost.”
Letivi and Gyasi quietly conferred. They did not think there was a supplier of suitable packaging in the country and they knew the cost of electricity was prohibitive. In their own minds, they were already looking for solutions to these seemingly insurmountable problems.
One of the two women in the group asked in a timid voice, “There seems to be a lot of machinery involved. How to we obtain such machines and learn to maintain and operate them?”
Phil exclaimed, “Another very good question. Everything will have to be ordered from Europe and those who will be operating the plant will have to be trained in Europe. You will need all the required tools and a good stock of spare parts. As I said before, setting up and operating a processing plant is a complicated business and it can take two years or more before the first batch of cocoa powder is produced.”
There was almost a collective ‘gulp.’ Every person seated in the room looked left and right to see the reactions of those around them. Everyone was really discouraged now. Not by all the unforeseen complications, but by the length of time it would take to begin processing cacao. These were people who lived for the day at hand. It was the quick satisfaction of their present needs that interested them. It was difficult for them to think about or work for something that would not occur for over two years. It was a challenge for them to put such distant objectives on their daily survival agenda.
The other woman who had held her hand in the air for a long time was called on to ask her question. In a forceful and no-nonsense voice, she asked, “The main thing we need to know is how all this will make more money for us. After all, this is why we are doing this. We need more money so that we are less poor.”
Phil smiled and thanked this courageous lady for her pertinent query. He replied in uncertain words, “Yes, that is the crux of the matter. And the truth is that you will have more headaches than you have now and you may make very little more money, if at all. Much depends on the demand for your cocoa powder and how much people are willing to pay for it. I have to do my analysis, but I am almost sure that you will not be able to sell you cacao beans for a higher price. How much you can profit from producing cocoa powder will depend greatly on the management structure you put in place and the investment and operational costs.”
Phil’s words deflated the group’s elation and brought them back to reality’s ground with a heavy and depressing thud. Nobody made a sound. Their spirits had dropped so low that even the geckos on the walls stopped croaking. Letivi took some time before standing and took a couple more minutes before saying, “We thank Mr. Mason for opening our eyes to a number of things we had not thought about with regard to the installation of a cacao processing plant. He has given us much to think about. As Mr. Mason does not have much time, I ask him to tell us what additional information he needs from us and what he needs to do here today so he can complete his report on our processing plant?”
Phil stood again and said, “I think I have most of the information I need. It would be good if I could work a while with your technical team to elaborate a rough sketch of where cacao is cultivated around your village and in your district. It would also be good if I could visit a few cacao fields and the location where you would like to locate the plant. One thing I am concerned about is how cacao beans will be collected and transported to the plant. I also have some questions about land ownership and banking facilities.”
Phil’s last remarks added to Letivi’s increasing worries about the feasibility of this cocoa powder project. He tried to stay composed as he said, “Very well. I think it would be a good idea if you could sit down for an hour or so with our core team to draw up a map showing in an illustrative manner where cacao is grown around our village. After that, the same team can show you some nearby cacao fields. We can also assemble here again for lunch and our final discussion. I hope this is agreeable to everyone.”
Most of the people in the room exited following Letivi’s remarks. Those remaining included Gregoire and the officers of the cacao growers association. Letivi turned to the two white men and said, “Please excuse me and my fellow chief. We’ll leave you until lunch in the good hands of those who know the most about the cultivation of cacao by our village. We’ll discuss more later.”
As soon as Letivi and Gyasi stepped outside, Letivi dug into a deep pocket of his gown to retrieve his mobile phone. He turned to Gyasi and said, “Let’s find a quiet place so I can try to call the president. I need to tell him about the meeting and obtain his opinions on a number of topics.”
Letivi and Gyasi walked to a distant corner of his vast compound. With a trembling hand, Letivi punched in the president’s number. He could hear the phone ringing at the other end. It rang a long time before the president answered in a gruff tone, “Letivi, what do you want? I am very busy!”
Letivi quickly replied, “Mr. President, I need to talk to you about the meeting we are having now with the USAID expert.”
The president immediately said, “Okay. Go ahead, but don’t waste my time.”
As rapidly as he could, Letivi responded, saying, “Mr. President, the expert says we need electricity and packaging for our cocoa powder. He also says it will be hard for us to compete against imported cocoa powder. What do you advise?”
The president put Letivi on hold for several minutes before barking out the following advice, “Don’t worry about electricity. We are extending high tension lines from Melomti to Kpolomo and we can run a short branch line into your village at a subsidized rate. We are also planning to build a packaging manufacturing plant. So, don’t worry about that either. If need be, I will raise tariffs on imported cocoa powder so it will not be able to compete with our cocoa powder. I have to go.”
Letivi held the silent phone next to his ear for a minute before turning to his grandfather to tell him what the president said. They both thought long and hard over at the president’s words. They were impressed that the president seemed to have an answer to all their concerns. But, somehow, they worried about such close involvement with the president and the dependence of the success of their cacao processing plant on him. The last thing they wanted was to be hostage to the president’s whims.
In faraway Melomti, the president had a very different set of ideas running through his mind. The president’s major concern on this matter and everything else was how he could make the most money. He was making a lot of money from kickbacks from the companies selected to install the power line to Kpolomo. This donor-funded project cost his country nothing and a second phase was already planned to offer electricity to the villages near the power line. The president also planned to collect a percentage of the money paid by the villages for the supply of electricity.
The president would also gain a percentage of the value of the contract signed for the building of a plant to manufacture packaging material. It would be easy for him to apply higher tariffs on imported cocoa powder or prohibit altogether the importation of foreign-made powder. He was thinking that maybe the foreign firms would give him a lucrative payment to permit the entry into the country of their cocoa powder. Everywhere the president looked he saw opportunities to rake off money. And, on top of making handsome sums of money, he would be building up his prestige. He would be given the credit for creating the first cacao processing and packaging plants in the country, as well as for being the one who made rural electrification possible. He could visualize cutting a big red ribbon to inaugurate the plant with the American Ambassador. He would definitely bestow upon the ambassador his country’s highest award, the gold medal of the Order of Kotoku. There was nothing sweeter for him than gaining more glory and padding his large offshore bank accounts at the same time.
The president was delighted by all the possibilities the establishment of a cacao processing plant presented him. His head was spinning over all the schemes he could use to rake in money. Of course, he would handpick the people who would operate the plant and they would therefore be beholding to him and pay him part of their salaries. He could keep the people of Ataku happy by paying them a premium price for the cocoa powder, even if he were to sell it for a lower price on the open market. If the foreign cocoa-producing companies offered him high enough bribes to sell their cocoa powder on the local market, he would have no qualms about throwing into the ocean the cocoa powder produced by the Ataku plant. He saw that the most lucrative part of these corrupt practices would be in the money foreign firms paid for tariffs or in bribes. And, in any deal with foreign firms, he would insist they pay him a good price for the cocoa butter produced by the Ataku plant.
Lunch had been served in the small, straw-covered banquet hangar in another corner of the compound by a number of hard-working village women who did their best to prepare the finest meal possible. Bottled water and soft drinks had been provided by Chez André’s. Just in case it would be needed, a large clay jar of fresh palm wine was kept on the side. Letivi and Gyasi took their seats at the head of the nicely decorated banquet tables that had been arranged in a big square. Despite their hunger, they patiently waited for the two white men to return from their walk to visit nearby cacao fields.
They did not have to wait long. The white men and the core technical group sat down at their designated places along the banquet tables. The two white men sat at the head table between Letivi and Gyasi. Letivi tapped his spoon on a drinking glass to gain the attention of the others. When there was quiet and all eyes were focused on Letivi, who said, “First, let us fill our glasses so we can toast our honored guests. Secondly, let us eat our fill and while we eat we can talk. I am interested to hear more of what Mr. Mason has to say.”
They all raised their glasses in praise of the two white men. They drank and loudly clinked their glasses together with those on their right and left. There was some boisterousness and much laughing. In spite of all the obstacles to establishing the cacao processing plant that had been revealed, there was still some optimism about making cocoa powder locally. Food of every kind was piled high on huge platters that were passed around until everyone had on their plates all the food they wanted.
Phil took a little of everything and his plate was stacked high. He ate a few bites and asked for the chiefs’ permission to speak. Letivi tapped on his glass again, asking for everyone to give Mr. Mason their full attention. Phil started by saying, “Please keep eating. I would normally not talk while I eat, but in the interest of time, I will do so today. Dear chiefs and everyone, I would like to say again how happy I am with the fabulous reception you have given us and all the information you provided me today. I could have not have asked for better.”
Everyone applauded loudly Phil’s words and was eager to hear what else he had to say. Phil continued by saying, “It is possible to set up a cacao processing plant as you desire, but there are a good number of conditions that must be met first. I will not be able to be clear on these conditions and other details until I complete my feasibility study. It will take about two weeks for me to finish the first draft of my study. Then I will need your comments on it before moving to a final version. Mr. Morgan will be in touch with you on this and I will return to visit with you as needed and indicated by USAID.”
Phil was interrupted by another round of applause and the passing of calabashes full of palm wine for those wishing to partake. All of those from the village, except the two chiefs, were not going to miss this free opportunity to drink their fill of palm wine, as well as stuff themselves with food. Phil and Steve were impressed by how much more the people around the table could eat than they could eat. As Phil watched the members of the technical committee gorge themselves, he continued speaking, “In conclusion, I want to say that the site chosen for the plant is good, but I want to underscore my main concerns. These concerns fall under the following four main headings: electricity, packaging, competition and land tenure. We have discussed the first three points, but not the last. Please let me say something about land tenure.”
Letivi said, “By all means, Mr. Mason, talk to us about land tenure.”
Phil said, “I will try to be brief and not too blunt. I am sorry to say that as long as you do not have deeds for your land and your family cacao fields are widely scattered into small plots hither and thither, you can’t move to the higher level of cacao production achieved by modern cacao plantations.”
Gregoire’s hand immediately flew into the air and he pleaded to be permitted to speak. Letivi signaled that his interruption of Phil was okay and he could speak. Gregoire spoke loudly, “Why do we need deeds. Nobody has deeds here. Our farming land stays with the families that have cultivated it for generations. Everyone knows who has the rights to cultivate each plot of land. If there is any problem, it is quickly settled in village court.”
Phil quickly replied, “I am very familiar with the customary traditional land practices you have in your village. I will just say that to achieve economies of scale and the highest level of productivity, all the land should be one large farm. I will also add that to obtain loans from a bank you need land deeds to provide as collateral. Furthermore, for the operations of your cacao processing plant it would be good to convince one of the banks in the regional capital of Kpolomo to open a branch in your village. Someday, all of you will need bank accounts.”
Phil’s final words were sobering ones for all those present. Instead of smiles and applause, feelings had again taken a downturn. The degree of residual optimism that existed at the start of this luncheon meeting was now reduced to the very minimum. Letivi sensed deeply the depressive mood caused by Phil’s words and tried to pick up everyone’s sprits by conveying the news he learned from his phone call with the president. Letivi stood and said forthrightly, “Please do not let yourselves be down in the dumps because of all the daunting challenges we face with setting up a cacao processing plant. My recent talk with the president gives us new hopes. The president will make a special effort to run a branch line to our village when the approaching new power line to Kpolomo is completed. He will also provide our village and our planned processing plant with electricity at a subsidized rate. In addition, he is supporting the building of a factory in Melomti to manufacture packaging materials. Finally, he says he will restrict the imports of cocoa powder in order to reduce or eliminate competition for our cocoa powder.”
The news delivered by Letivi was met with loud applause. Smiles re-appeared on the faces of all in attendance. Letivi asked for quiet to say some final words, “I want to thank again Mr. Mason and Mr. Morgan for taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with us today. Mr. Mason has provided us with very useful information and we will be discussing all he said for some days to come. We look forward to collaborating with you as we pursue the next steps in the establishment of our cacao processing plant. We wish both of you a safe return to Melomti.”
There was another loud applause and then the chief escorted the white men to the compound exit where the welcoming committee was waiting to escort them to their car parked at the bottom of the hill. Again, the wide pathway was packed with villagers singing the praises of the white men and wishing them safe travel. The white men bade farewell to all as they stepped up into their big car, which immediately sped off. As the driver headed toward the junction with the main national highway, Steve turned to Phil and asked, “What do you really think?”
Phil said, “I wish there was another way to raise their incomes because I do not believe a cacao processing plant will do that. Even if a cacao plant is set up, it will be more of a ‘politicized’ showcase project than a profitable entity. In any event, let’s go through the motions so we have the details to back up any arguments we wish to put forth.”
Steve responded, “Thanks. I thought as much. In the end, it will be our ambassador and how this project relates to our bilateral relations with this country that will determine if we provide assistance or not. I do know that we are nervous about supporting any project with which the president is involved. I also note that it is against our policies to support projects that benefit from subsidies and trade protection. You know the US government’s stand on subsidization and free trade, even though we often do not practice at home what we preach abroad.”
Mark G. Wentling spent nine years with the Peace Corps (Honduras, 1967-69; Togo, 1970-73; Peace Corps Staff, Togo, Gabon and Niger, 1973-76) before joining USAID in 1977. As a U.S. Foreign Service Officer he served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam and Washington, D.C before retiring from the Senior Foreign Service in 1996. Since his retirement he has worked for USAID as it Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes and Country Program Manager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He is a 1992 National War College Graduate. He has also worked in Africa for U.S. Non-Governmental Organizations and he is currently Country Director for PLAN in Burkina Faso. On September 20, he marked 41 years since arriving in Africa in 1970. He has worked in, or visited, 53 African countries.