West African countries have complained for decades about the disproportionately little amount of revenue they receive for their cocoa exports. The region accounts for about 70 percent of global production, with Ghana and Ivory Coast alone contributing over 60 percent. However, most West African cocoa farmers live in poverty because worldwide, cocoa producers receive just about $6 billion of the estimated $100 billion in annual chocolate industry revenues.  

By virtue of their combined dominant position among producers, Ghana and Ivory Coast have strong leverage so the recent efforts by their leaders to gain a greater share of global chocolate industry revenues for their countries are laudable. Among other things, they have jointly decided to set a $2,600-per-ton floor price for their cocoa, about 10 percent higher than current market price, with threats to suspend sales until this objective is met.

One of the main factors prompting the latest effort is concern about the increasing use of child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa. The two leaders and children’s advocacy groups say that poverty is forcing farmers to rely on their children for help with farm work, disrupting their education. Others have noted that young children are being trafficked from neighboring countries to work on cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Getting buyers to pay more for West African cocoa to help resolve these child-labor issues is obviously a correct move, but in Ghana’s case, equally important is the responsibility the government has to clean up its own act.

West African cocoa is produced predominantly by small-scale farmers who live and work in remote forest areas. In Ghana, the government acts as a wholesale dealer. Its agency, the Cocoa Board, sets the price at which it buys cocoa from farmers. Those purchases are then resold on the world market to large end users such as Hershey and Nestlé.

For many decades, earnings from cocoa exports have been a primary source of revenue for the Ghanaian government. However, this crucial role that cocoa farmers play in the nation’s economy has not been properly recognized in terms of government support for farming communities.

I am the son of a cocoa farmer. Because my father’s farm is in a forest that is inaccessible by vehicle, after each harvest season, we carried heavy sacks of cocoa on our heads through treacherous terrain to the nearest Cocobod center, which was about seven miles away. We had to make multiple trips each year. That is how it is for the vast majority of Ghanaian cocoa farmers. Apart from the lack of roads, electricity, and running water, there are often no schools and hospitals anywhere near the places these mostly illiterate farmers live. To get to school daily, their children would have to walk miles through jungles, an impracticability. That is the chief reason most cocoa farmers’ children lack education, not because their labor is required. Overwhelmingly, those I got to know in various parts of Ghana over the years would have rather sent their children to school.

My siblings and I were extremely lucky. Before our father started his farm, we lived and attended school in a small town about twenty miles away. Rather than halting our education by moving the entire family, he chose to relocate alone; we helped him during school breaks. It wasn’t ideal, neither for him nor the rest of the family, but it was a sacrifice we all had to make.

Successive Ghanaian governments could have made life a whole lot easier for farmers and their families simply by constructing roads to provide them access to markets, schools, and hospitals. As it is, the lives of people living in farming communities are constantly in danger. They are so isolated from hospitals that the slightest health emergency can result in death. This inaccessibility is not due to financial incapability on the part of government, but lack of will. Political leaders and bureaucrats have instead chosen to live large on the backs of Ghanaian cocoa farmers.

In addition to their high salaries, most high- and mid-level Ghanaian government officials enjoy perks like government-provided free housing, vehicles, chauffeurs, and round-the-clock security guards in their homes. The government supplies free fuel for the vehicles, many of which are gas-guzzling, eight-cylinder SUVs. They are often used for private business, without consequences. And, most of those officials don’t pay for utilities such as water and electricity either.

Apparently, all that is not enough waste in government for some people. Upon assuming office in early 2017, the current Ghanaian president immediately increased the size of his cabinet by a whopping 42 percent to 125 ministers, at a time when even rich countries are shrinking the size of their governments to cut costs. The expansion translates into many more free houses, vehicles, and associated expenses. The president subsequently proposed to build a $100 million national cathedral in Accra, a plan he has stuck to despite vehement opposition by many Ghanaians. Then there is the newly proposed $200 million parliamentary chamber. It has similarly attracted fierce criticism from the Ghanaian public; that plan, thankfully, appears to have been shelved for now. Such obscenely wasteful spending has been rampant within the entire Ghanaian public sector for decades.

Unfortunately, there has never been an effective advocacy group in Ghana to demand better treatment for cocoa farmers. It is a serious deficiency that needs to be addressed. Even while the government uses whatever clout it has to extract higher prices for its international cocoa sales, there is clearly enough it can do immediately to help alleviate farmer poverty: by cutting some of that enormous waste. It is rather disingenuous on its part to blame Hershey, Nestlé, and other external industry players for the deplorable living conditions of Ghanaian cocoa farmers. It must look itself in the mirror.