The Sweet Taste of Cocoa

By Molly Marsh / November 2010

Wehplay, Liberia — If you could use only two words to describe David Kpan’s approach to life, the words on his motorbike’s license plate would suffice: “Patience Pays.”

Like many farmers here, 51-year-old Kpan had to abandon his lush cocoa farm during the long years of Liberia’s civil wars. When he returned to it in 2005, he found himself in an overgrown farm full of dead trees, in a devastated country with little capacity to help its citizens.

Even before the war, Liberia’s cocoa farmers faced considerable challenges. For starters, cocoa—which is used to make chocolate—produced in Liberia was considered inferior in the global market because there was no grading system in place to evaluate it. Farmers also lacked the business and marketing skills needed to improve their crops so they could receive better prices at the market.

Now, walking among his cocoa trees with his children scampering around him, Kpan points out the numerous yellow-orange cocoa pods ready for harvesting. He describes how he has been able to rehabilitate the 2.5-acre farm he inherited from his father.

In 2007, Kpan heard about a program that offered training for cocoa farmers like him—the Livelihood Improvement for Farming Enterprises (LIFE) program, run by ACDI-VOCA, a U.S. nongovernmental organization supported in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Kpan took classes on better farming practices—such as pest management, crop diversification, and harvesting—but he also came away with a new way of thinking about his livelihood. Through the program’s “Farming as a Business” curriculum, he learned how to budget and how to record all of his expenses and profits so he could track his progress from year to year.

“Before, I didn’t know whether I’m going backward or progressing,” Kpan says, gesturing to the farm around him. “[Now] I always plan what to do in a year, and I always take record of my farming activities. At the end of the year I evaluate to see whether I’m doing well. If I’m doing well, I continue. If I’m not doing well, I redouble my efforts.”

Wearing jeans and a torn brown dress shirt, Kpan holds a blue hardback journal in which he’s recorded his farm’s activities in neat lines across the pages. Under a column titled “Cocoa work plan activities by monthly cost,” Kpan lists his 2009 expenses—which included harvesting, shade management, packaging the beans, and transporting them to the market—as USD $262.23. He sold 407 kilograms (896 pounds) that year for $598.80. His net profit for the year is totaled at the bottom of the page: $336.57.

Kpan expected to surpass that amount in 2010, since by last October, with a month left in the growing season, he had already made a $280 profit. This is partly because he’s getting a better price for his cocoa—but also because he’s part of a farmers association that has boosted his economic power.

The Zoe-Kwadoe Farmers Association, of which Kpan is the chair, includes 276 farmers from the area. By working together and selling their cocoa in bulk instead of individually, the farmers can increase their access to buyers and get a better price for their beans.

In 2009, Zoe-Kwadoe—which means “We Are One”—sold 13 metric tons of cocoa and expected to sell even more in 2010.

“We are fighting for Liberia to be on the map of cocoa-producing countries,” Kpan says. “And how do we do that? By producing quality cocoa—not quantity, but quality. We can get people interested to come here. It’s one of our major goals, that Liberia is known as a quality cocoa-producing country.”

Producing quality cocoa is possible now that an international grading system, established by ACDI-VOCA, is in place. Prior to this, there was no way for buyers to distinguish good quality cocoa from bad, and there was no incentive for farmers to follow the strict fermentation process that results in higher quality cocoa—which ultimately gets the farmers a better price.

With his profits, Kpan has been able to complete his family’s house and buy a motorbike, which is what he uses to transport his cocoa to the market.

“I’m very careful now how I’m spending,” Kpan says. “My children are not hungry and can go to school. I’m able to buy rice for two or three months.” He smiles and nods to some of the family members before him. “All of them ate this morning, so they are very happy. If it was a hungry home, they would look different.”

The LIFE program also helps farmers understand the importance of diversifying their crops, so they have a steady supply of income in case one or more crops fail. To that end, Kpan and his family also farm rice fields, grow kola nuts, and tend a garden near their house that includes cassava and other vegetables. Next year he’ll add other crops.

The success of Kpan and some of the other farmers has caused the association’s ranks to grow. While he hopes the LIFE program will expand beyond the three Liberian counties in which it’s currently operating, the training he’s received has made a lasting impact on him and his family.

“With or without ADCI-VOCA,” he says, “we can still stand.”

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