Innovations and Representations of Cocoa Labor in 20th Century Ghana

By Zahra Gandhi

When you eat a chocolate bar, the first thing you notice is its sweet, earthy taste. This familiar flavor comes from the Forastero bean, which you may associate with Mexico or Colombia. Even though cocoa was first cultivated by the Olmecs in modern-day Mexico around 1000 BCE, cocoa production has since spread widely throughout the tropical world. The Criollo [native, local] plant in Mexico is quite rare and accounts for just 3% of the world’s chocolate (Garnsworthy). But the Forastero [stranger, outsider] bean, which originated in Brazil, has made its way around the globe and is the source for 85% of the world’s chocolate (Garnsworthy). Your chocolate bar, processed from Forastero beans, likely came from West Africa.

This lack of awareness about where chocolate comes from and who produces it is indicative of the public's disconnect between places of consumption and places of production. A focus on large company’s and country’s stakes in global commodities such as chocolate often erases the laborers and places of labor in smaller, less-developed countries. Cocoa has been produced in West Africa since the 1800s and farmers have long been developing agricultural techniques and modifying them to best suit their forest climate (O’Malley).  But because European powers had experience with the mass production of cocoa, they disregarded African farmers and saw their methods as inferior, despite their innovations and control of the land (Hill, Historicus).

This also led to a disconnect on how to properly represent the workers doing the cocoa labor. Europeans who produced these images often fell into stereotypes and depictions that were used for workers in colonial empires before them (Burke). These imbalances in representations still hold today, even as people become aware of the injustices behind chocolate production and efforts to make just and fair farming becomes more important.

This exhibit is particularly interested in the transformations of cocoa labor in Ghana throughout the 20th century, a vital moment in both the economic agency that cocoa provided as well as the emergence of a growing and powerful farming class.  I seek to answer the following questions:

·       What kinds of innovations in agriculture and labor were people in Ghana able to make in cocoa production?  

·       Where did the native Ghanaians and British colonists succeed and struggle? 

·       How did this lead to Ghana being a major producer and exporter of chocolate today?

For the purpose of this exhibit, I define an "innovation" as any agricultural, economic or labor-related change that was developed and implemented through observations and experiences as opposed to requiring it through force. Examples of these innovations include migrant labor, the sale of fermented cocoa beans and education for farmers.

In answering these questions, I hope to show how small-holding Ghanaian laborers were innovative and in control of their labor, despite British, and later Ghanaian, governmental regulation. Although there was an evident lack of leadership and dismissing of ideas, cocoa laborers were more successful than what they were portrayed as (Leiter and Harding). Due to a lack of understanding of labor, British-produced images of labor tended to be misrepresentative and simplistic. These imbalances and depictions caused cocoa to follow a trajectory of growth, decline and revitalization over the 20th century.

Page 2 provides some historical context of cocoa labor in Ghana. Page 3 looks at sources from the early 1900s, which show the agricultural innovations cocoa laborers made despite their inferior portrayals.  Page 4 looks at sources after Ghana’s independence in 1957, which show the governmental shortcomings and absences that lead to the downfall in cocoa production and an economic depression. Page 5 looks at images from modern-day Fairtrade certified companies, which, despite advocating for ethical, safe and financially supportive farming, still erase the Ghanaian farmers and their power from the depictions.

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