The day I published my previous post, on why boycotting multinational chocolate companies has the potential to harm cocoa farmers, I traveled to the town of Assin Fosu in Ghana’s Central Region to visit Kwabena Assan Mends, founder of Emfed Farms. (See my ConfectioneryNews article on Emfed’s first client, Ama Ampomaa, to learn about Emfed’s services.)
Mends is the son and grandson of cocoa farmers, and farms cocoa himself. While he has cultivated other professional options (he teaches Agricultural Science at a secondary school, and was a 2019 Acumen Fellow), he has chosen to make his living working in cocoa.
One morning during my visit, Mends took the time to share his views on boycotting chocolate multinationals.
Kwabena Assan Mends speaks about child labor, multinational boycotts, & cocoa livelihoods
[The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
KL Some people have proposed boycotting multinational chocolate companies. They suggest that these companies are doing harm in West Africa, including forcing child labor on cocoa farms. What do you think of the idea to boycott multinationals?
KM When it comes to child labor, the perception [overseas] is different.
When they see our children following us, or doing some small activity, they think that we are enslaving our own children. And this is never true. They think that when they buy [cocoa] beans from Ghana, then the only means of us producing that is by using children for that work – it’s not true.
If they are trying to deny the big companies to buy the volumes as they can buy from us, then it means they are trying, in a way, [to] get to a point whereby the beans will not be bought. Because [if we relied upon] small companies alone, the volumes of cocoa that come from our site here will not be bought. And that will leave us a huge problem.
It is totally not true about the writing that goes on that Africans, what we enjoy doing most, is using our children in the farm.
I give myself as a typical example. My grandfather was a cocoa farmer. My father was a cocoa farmer. And my father never used me forcefully. I followed him doing every[thing] he was doing in the farm, whilst I was observing, and learning from him.
You know, the most disturbing part of it is that none of the fathers wish to take their children to the farm! When my son is with me in the farm, every thirty minutes, I have to attend to him. I have to stop the pod breaking, or whatever, [to say], “Takye, don’t do this! Stand here, or you will see [the Emfed worker] there only full of disturbances.” So, none of us, none of the farmers, delight in taking their children to farm.
But it is a passed-on heritage, that my son should know what I’m doing. You know, my son, he’s just five years old. He wakes up in the morning and says, “Dada, when I grow up, I will do compost and sell. I want to do compost myself.” [Mends processes waste products from cocoa and oil palm into organic compost at Emfed.] Do you get it? That doesn’t mean child labor!
He has a small spade. Whilst the workers are busy doing [the composting], he has said, “I want to take some and compost myself.” And that is not child labor. The issues that they talk about, that maybe we have brought other people from elsewhere to work in the cocoa farms or whatever it is, it’s never true.
You know, this issue, which the certification bodies and others have taken up, has let most of the [young] people lose interest [in farming].
“It is totally not true about the writing that goes on that Africans, what we enjoy doing most, is using our children in the farm.”
KL So now children don’t want to go to the farm?
KM They don’t even want to go there!
They’ve been told, over and over again, that when you go to farm, when you do this, when you carry things, or whatever, it’s child labor.
I got to know all these things I’m doing well [today] by learning from my father, and my grandfather. I went to school. [After], I followed them to the farm. When I came home, I had to carry a load, either firewood or foodstuff. That got me to this point. So if we are ignoring our children, of not participating and learning the culture, of passing on this act – then how can we [pass on farming skills]?
The multinationals are not the people who are, let’s say, forcing any indigenous here to use their children in farming.
KL Why do you think people in America or Europe believe that multinationals are forcing children into labor?
KM It is misinformation. That’s what I think.
And it is some publications that have been done earlier that have led to that misconception. Maybe because of the slave trade history that they know, about what happened here. They think that because these volumes of cocoa are coming from this region, then it definitely means that all the children are being forced to do this work. That is a misconception.
It is about time that some strong men need to write about it. Me, any of the platforms that I’ve been on, I’ve talked about that. Normally I do radio education, and I explain very well that, “Oh, they are not going to buy our cocoa again because [they believe] it is [grown with] child labor.” Our leaders, let’s say the Cocoa Board leaders, they need to stand up and explain that concept very well.
My children don’t have any cinema, or any computer game. What do they have to do? They only have to observe their father drying his cocoa beans. And that does not mean that I have forced the child to do anything hazardous. On Saturdays, where should they go? Saturdays, all parents go to the farm.
KL If people overseas decided never to buy chocolate from a multinational again, what would happen to cocoa farming in Ghana?
KM That is another point that we have to raise here.
They have to know that the main source of livelihood for the people in this area is income from the cocoa farm. You know, I have some comparison. I’ve read from most people who have grown up in the European countries, that, “Oh, when I was sixteen, I was selling newspapers. I was delivering these newspapers house to house.” I’ve read that from quite a number of people.
Because people there are interested in reading newspapers. So, as young as you are, you realize that when you are going to deliver newspapers door to door, you will be earning some cents.
Here, when you are sixteen and there is something that you are trying to develop into entrepreneurial skills, or trying ways of raising money, when you deliver a newspaper to my grandfather, he will not read [it]. I hope you get it. What else will you do? It’s just a matter of going to learn how to grow cocoa. Is that child labor?
If they push the multinationals to the extent that they should not buy [cocoa], then they are totally denying the source of livelihood for all the people in the rural areas. Because that is the only source of livelihood for them.
KL So if everyone boycotted chocolate multinationals, people will lose their livelihoods?
KM You will lose your livelihood.
“When they see our children following us, or doing some small activity, they think that we are enslaving our own children. And this is never true.”
KL I imagine that some people reading our interview might ask, “If farmers lost their livelihood from cocoa, why wouldn’t they grow something else?”
KM Kristy, yes, I know they will say that.
The simple answer to that is, there are other alternative crops that you can grow. But does it have a regular market, that can generate the income that would be regularly available? If the answer is yes, then people would have loved to do that. But that is not there. So, we work on those [crops] that have a regular market, that will be able to generate new income.
The only source of livelihood for people in a rural community is the farm they own. They have to work for their product to be bought, so that they can generate income to take care of their children, of their family. If [people overseas] want them to grow other crops, where is the market?
There are other crops, like rubber. Last year, during the COVID time, what we realized was all the rubber farmers had challenges of making sales. Because the COVID shut it down, and [rubber buyers] were not coming again. [Before], people who were in rubber, sometimes they made more money than those in the cocoa sector. But look at the COVID, and the consequences that had.
One thing that my grandfather always said was that he found it very difficult to grow something that is not food. Because if it is edible, so long as man is alive, man will eat. And in that case, demand will go high. When COVID came, people were still eating, and people need chocolate! [Smiles] So cocoa buying is still going on. The market that is available for the crop is very important. They need to understand that.
KL Another question I can imagine people asking is, “If you can’t grow anything besides cocoa, why don’t you go to town to get a job?”
KM Whoever will say this is ignorant of many things, and needs to be helped with hav[ing] some understanding.
The unemployment rate in our country is very high. Most people are looking for a white-collar job, in the cities. The city is already choked. Our city is choked. We have few processing industries which would engage more youth.
If you advise somebody that, “Ok, because you are being forced to do some labor, run to the city,” then it’s the wrong information that you are giving to the person. You just want the person to not have any basis of life. Or not to have a sustainable life. That is what I may say. Because now, if you want to run away from [Assin] Fosu, and go and stay in Accra, even if you have a qualification, what job are you going to apply for? Running to the cities never solves the problem!
After graduation, when I came to work on [Emfed Farms], even most of my colleagues never understood me. They were thinking that I have to run to Accra, find some job. But how well would that sustain me? And how comfortable would I be staying in Accra, whilst I abandon the … lands my grandparents had, and our clan, our family had, in the villages, which will generate a continual, sustainable income for me?
It is the understanding of what do you really intend to do, and the impact that you want to make in the community. We all are not born in those industrial areas. We grew up in the rural community. We are happy being confined in our small village, where we have our family. You see your cocoa farm, you have your local fowls, you have your goods. You have all this. Life is ok with us.
Let me tell you about my grandmother. My grandmother is never happy when you cook food for her, and you use the gas stove. Do you understand?
KL She wants it cooked on the fire?
KM Yes! She wants the ordinary fire.
When you cook plantain on the gas stove, it is not sweet. [Laughs] But when you cook it on the real fire, she is happy. So why do you want my grandmother to go to Accra? She will die, within three days. And I have that blood in me. So why should I run into the city?
I remember in one of my Acumen interviews, I was told that, “Kwabena has a therapeutic farm.” I told them that, in the days and the season when I am much stressed out, I just want to go back to my village, work in my farm, and regain my emotions.
KL Let’s come back to the multinationals. The perception, overseas, is sometimes that these companies are only doing harm to people in Ghana. Can you speak to that?
KM They are doing good. They are doing good.
For me, that is my understanding. I haven’t seen anything bad that they are doing. It is a chain of business. I’m the producer. They are the buyers.
It is an answered prayer, let me tell you. It is an answered prayer to our God that the whole year our cocoa has been bought. If the multinationals decided that, this year, we are not buying, it will be more [impactful] than the COVID-19! Oh yes! It will be more than the COVID-19.
It’s the interpretation of the work they are doing, and how best it’s supposed to reach all people. About a week ago, I had a discussion with one farmer. I mentioned to her, “Do you remember the CMC [Cocoa Marketing Company] scholarship? And the number of people who have benefited from that?” And she said, “Yes, I remember this person, and this person, and this person.”
I know a lot of people who benefited from the CMC scholarship. And the CMC scholarships come from these multinationals, who are buying the cocoa. It is their premium and other monies that Cocoa Board gets [from selling cocoa to them] that is put into that fund. And we have a lot of cocoa roads that have been constructed. Where did the government get money for that? It’s through the marketing of cocoa that we have that money.
KL Could they be doing more?
KM Oh, they can do more. They can do more. They can do better.
Yes. But I say they are doing well. They are also looking at the busines of what they can sustain. So, it is a kind of a mutual trade. I think they are doing well. And going forward, they can do better.