AfricaLive: Please tell readers a bit about the DNA of the Cocoa Marketing Company, and its role in Ghana’s cocoa industry.
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: Cocoa Marketing Company is a subsidiary of the Ghana Cocoa Board and our job is to market Ghana’s cocoa. We warehouse, ship, sell and help distribute our cocoa globally. Our job, in summary, is to collect the crop from farmers and facilitate its sale to buyers both domestic and foreign.
AfricaLive: Being that cocoa is such a major raw material at the moment, please speak on its potential and the general future of the industry.
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: Cocoa is the primary input in confectionaries as well as chocolate, and is also a big ingredient in both the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Its primary use though is in the food and beverage industry. This is a $150 billion market where 20 percent of the raw material comes from Ghana. Cocoa contributes so much to the social-economic fortunes of Ghana and it has since the early 1900s.
As our continent looks to develop, we must ask ourselves what role this industry will play. Africa produces about 70 per cent of the cocoa with Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Cameroon featuring heavily in raw material production while smaller quantities are sourced from Togo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Our country produces the best quality in the world and that informs our firm focus on the industry.
AfricaLive: The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area will be going ahead in early 2021, hopefully acting as a catalyst for driving Intra-African trade. What are your ambitions, both in the short term and long term, when it comes to trading internationally?
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was set up to create a continental market. The free trade market ensures the free movement of goods as well as the capital, and we couldn’t be more excited. The agreement will help us in these times where multilateralism is being rejected in favour of protectionism in many countries. We are now seeing individual countries in the West taking strong stances for their benefit against respected international bodies like the W.H.O.
We are glad that our continent is making harmonisation efforts instead in terms of trade and other areas. The AfCFTA agreement is especially exciting for us because Ghana will host its secretariat. The agreement will help the cocoa market greatly because cocoa is grown in tropical climates like ours. Though we produce most of it, we consume very little compared to other parts of the world. It’s unfortunate for us that we don’t get to determine its pricing, and we ultimately have very little control of the market. We can remedy the situation by adding value and creating routes and supply chains to trade the commodity amongst ourselves. The status quo of Europe adding value to what we produce and selling it back to us has to change.
Changing the status quo though must start by getting Africans to consume more cocoa. We must also seek to get into intra-African partnerships that will benefit us. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have been in talks to merge their industries so that they can have more bargaining power in the global cocoa industry. We must work to get other African countries like Nigeria and Cameroon onboard. The export reality at the moment is that raw beans can be exported into Europe tariff-free; semi-processed beans attract a 15 per cent tariff while a finished product would attract 30 per cent.
Efforts have been made to encourage nothing but raw material imports from Africa. Ours is to ensure that we add value and try to export to them and if not possible, consume amongst ourselves. If we can increase consumption in Africa and make intra-African tariffs very low or even nonexistent, our influence on the price of cocoa will increase.
AfricaLive: There is a lot of talk about the need for Ghana to reduce reliance on raw material export in favour of value-added exports. Where do you see opportunities to add value in the cocoa industry?
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: Agriculture contributes about 54 percent of our GDP; this shows that we are exporting quite a number of agricultural products. The big question is what benefits are we getting by just sticking to raw material production and export? With Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire producing 65 percent of the raw materials in a $150 billion market, it’s unacceptable that we only get less than $10 billion for our efforts. Apart from finding ways to add value and trade within Africa, we must create synergies that make travel easier. Our infrastructure must be up to par for our plans to come to fruition.
The AfCFTA agreement will only realise its full potential if we improve our travel infrastructure. A lot depends on how easy it will be to travel between Accra, Ouagadougou, and Bamako. If we find ourselves in situations where one has to travel through France by air just to get to Bamako, then it will defeat the whole purpose. I am encouraged by the efforts being in this sub-region with regard to our railways. A standard railway is being built from the heart of Ghana and it will stretch through the northern part of the country all the way to Burkina Faso and then Mali. We must harmonise such rails to ensure we can travel easily from country to country. It is amazing that we now have a pronounced consciousness on the continent about the need for creating these synergies.
AfricaLive: What are some of the primary concerns you seek to address in the industry?
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: Our main focus is to uplift the farmer. There is a need to support farmers to ensure they can produce sufficient quality produce. There is a need to also increase the farmer’s income. Part of our discussions with officials in Cote d’ivoire is the establishment of a living income differential. The initiative will ensure that for every ton of cocoa produced, there will be a payment made of $400 that goes directly to the farmer.
The living income differential set aside directly for farmers will take effect in the coming season. We are also looking at trends and we have identified a rising demand for traceable cocoa and organic cocoa. Traceable cocoa requirements mainly involve anti-child labour practises, while organic cocoa is all about anti-deforestation. Standards have it that cocoa has to be produced sustainably before it can be accepted into global markets.
Child labour has been a particularly thorny issue for the industry. It was flagged and alarm bells went off quite loudly against the industry in the early 2000s. We have dealt with the issue quite effectively and we have a dedicated desk that caters to those concerns alone. Talks have been had with the European Union and the World Cocoa Foundation about this subject as well to see how child labour can be defeated. As these discussions are being hard though, there is a need for nuance. A child working in a farm does not necessarily amount to child labour. A lot of these children are not missing school and they have a good chance of becoming farmers just like I did. I was able to use my hands-on knowledge of the cocoa farms from a young age coupled with my education, to become a successful farmer.
AfricaLive: If you were to bring together Ghana’s leaders from government, higher education, and business to a roundtable meeting held at your HQ – what would be the main item on the agenda?
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: I would bring attention to the issue of our youth. There is a need for our young people to get involved in agriculture instead of just chasing few and far between white-collar jobs in the cities.
AfricaLive: What message would you like to send to global players in the industry as well as potential investors?
Vincent Okyere Akomeah: My message would be that this continent is now beyond aid. Africans are now looking at trade with partners that are interested in fair exchange. Tariffs that are designed to keep Africa a raw export market alone are now archaic and need to be dismantled. I would challenge foreign partners and potential partners to be just as keen on being fair to Africans, as they are when it comes to interrogating issues to do with deforestation and child labour. Tariffs and policies that seek to disadvantage our industry cannot be left out of any moral or ethical conversation to be had.