Chocolate Prices To Keep Rising As West Africa's Cocoa Crisis Deepens

By Reuters
Chocolate Prices To Keep Rising As West Africa's Cocoa Crisis Deepens

Surveying the stripped landscape of her farm - dotted with pools of cyanide-tainted, tea coloured waste water left by illegal gold miners - is enough to make Janet Gyamfi break down.

Only last year, the 27-hectare plot in western Ghana was covered with nearly 6,000 cocoa trees. Today, less than a dozen remain.

Shortages Of Cocoa Beans

"This farm was my only means of survival," the 52-year-old divorcee told Reuters, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I planned to pass it on to my children."

Long the world's undisputed cocoa powerhouses accounting for over 60% of global supply, Ghana and its West African neighbour Ivory Coast are both facing catastrophic harvests this season.

Expectations of shortages of cocoa beans - the raw material for chocolate - have seen New York cocoa futures CCc2 more than double this year alone. They have hit fresh record highs almost daily in an unprecedented trend that shows little sign of abating.


Perfect Storm

More than 20 farmers, experts and industry insiders told Reuters that a perfect storm of rampant illegal gold mining, climate change, sector mismanagement, and rapidly spreading disease is to blame.

In its most sobering assessment to date, according to data compiled since 2018 and obtained exclusively by Reuters, Ghana's cocoa marketing board Cocobod estimates that 590,000 hectares of plantations have been infected with swollen shoot, a virus that will ultimately kill them.

Ghana today has some 1.38 million hectares of land under cocoa cultivation, a figure Cocobod said includes infected trees that are still producing cocoa.

'Long-Term Decline'

"Production is in long-term decline," said Steve Wateridge, a cocoa expert with Tropical Research Services. "We wouldn't get the lowest crop for 20 years in Ghana and lowest for eight years in Ivory Coast if we hadn't reached a tipping point."

It's an imbroglio with no easy fixes that has shocked markets and could spell the beginning of the end of West Africa's cocoa supremacy, the experts told Reuters. That may open the door for ascendant producers, particularly in Latin America.


And while millions of cocoa farmers in West Africa are facing a painful watershed moment, it's a shift that will also be felt in wealthy consumer markets, possibly for years to come.

'Twice As Expensive'

Shoppers buying Easter confectionary in the United States are discovering that chocolate on store shelves is more than 10% more expensive than a year ago, according to data from research firm NielsenIQ.

Since chocolate makers tend to hedge cocoa purchases months in advance, analysts say the disastrous crops in West Africa will only really hit consumers later this year.

"The kind of chocolate bar that we're used to eating, that's going to become a luxury," said Tedd George, an Africa-focused commodities expert with Kleos Advisory. "It will be available, but it's going to be twice as expensive."

Illegal Miners

The roots of this season's implosion are on full display in Samreboi, the community in Ghana's western cocoa heartland where Gyamfi lives.


Only three years ago, Samreboi boasted roughly 38,000 hectares of planted cocoa, according to Cocobod's local office there. Today, it's fallen to just 15,400.

Illegal miners began appearing in the area a few years ago, Gyamfi said. She'd been resisting their threatening demands to sell them her plantation when, one day last June, she arrived to find it cordoned off. Armed guards blocked her entry.


Bulldozers tore out her cocoa trees. Miners swarmed the property. Within six months, the gold was finished and the site was abandoned, leaving Gyamfi with unusable land contaminated with toxic chemicals, a loan she can no longer pay back, and four children to support.

"I was traumatised," she said.

She said she pleaded with the police and Cocobod but says she's seen no reaction.


Cocoa Trees

An officer at the local police station, who asked not to be identified, said they had received a complaint but he could not remember if they had sent officers to the farm. He declined to consult police records.

Cocobod spokesman Fiifi Boafo, upon learning of her case, said the board's legal department would get involved.

"But we are not the police or the courts," he said. "It is illegal to destroy cocoa trees, but the penalty isn't punitive enough."


Across Ghana, cocoa plantations are ceding ground to gold miners, known locally as galamsey.

Cocobod told Reuters it had no up to date data on the scale of the destruction. And while a study it conducted four years ago found that 20,000 hectares of cocoa had been lost to galamsey, five experts said mining has expanded rapidly in the intervening years.

"It's now catastrophic," said Godwin Kojo Ayenor, a development economist specialising in cocoa. "It's covering almost every part of the cocoa belt."

Plantation Takeovers

While some plantation takeovers are indeed violent, five farmers and community leaders told Reuters that more and more of them are becoming willing sellers.

To cocoa farmer Asiamah Yeboah, galamsey is just a symptom of a broader malaise. Since hitting peak production of over a million tonnes in the 2020/21 season, Ghana has been sliding. Output is forecast to plummet to just 580,000 tonnes this year.

Yeboah says he harvested 50 bags of cocoa in 2015, but production from his 15-hectare plot fell to just seven this season. He doesn't earn enough to reinvest and increasingly struggles to find workers.

"Before God and man, if they come asking for my farm to mine, I will sell it," he said.

Disease And Climate Change

Yeboah and other Ghanaian farmers blame Cocobod.

The body, which has wide-reaching responsibility for regulating and promoting the sector, faces mounting debt and this season struggled to secure the syndicated loan it uses to finance operations and bring in the crop.

It suspended distributions of fertiliser and pesticides years ago. Plans to rejuvenate ageing tree stocks have made scant progress. And it is losing the battle against what many consider an existential threat: swollen shoot.

Swollen Shoot

The virus first reduces yields before ultimately killing trees. Once infected with swollen shoot, plantations must be ripped out and the soil treated before cocoa can be replanted.

Cocobod has undertaken to rehabilitate affected cocoa plantations, using a portion of its $600 million in financing from the African Development Bank and another $200 million from the World Bank.

"With aging and diseased crops, the challenges look scary," Boafo, the Cocobod spokesman, told Reuters. "But we've critical interventions ongoing to address them."

Rehabilitation Programme

The 67,000 hectares covered under Ghana's rehabilitation programme, however, come nowhere close to keeping up with the disease's spread, experts say. Worse, Cocobod says illegal miners invade some rehabilitated farms.

And in Ivory Coast, the world's biggest cocoa producer, things are hardly better, with Tropical Research Service's Wateridge estimating up to 30% of Ivorian cocoa plantations are likely infected.

'No Quick Fix'

There's no quick fix, said Antonie Fountain, managing director of VOICE Network, which pushes for cocoa sector reform.

"A dead tree is not just dead for a season," he said.

Even after rehabilitation, replanted trees take two to four years to mature and produce beans. And a significant rebound in cocoa production in the two nations faces other major headwinds.

Suitable Growing Areas

Researchers predict climate change will make the crop harder to produce in West Africa in coming decades with one study forecasting Ivory Coast's most suitable growing areas will shrink by more than 50% by the 2050s.

Rainfall patterns are already shifting, with more concentrated periods of heavy rains and longer, hotter dry spells, said Bakary Traoré, head of Ivorian forest conservation group IDEF.

"It's something we've already been observing for the past few years," he said.

Latin America

With West Africa struggling, current sky-high global prices will be an attractive incentive for farmers to plant more cocoa in other tropical regions, notably Latin America.

Both VOICE Network's Fountain and cocoa expert Wateridge are forecasting that Ecuador will now overtake Ghana as the world's number two cocoa by 2027. Brazil and Peru could also step up.

'Absolutely Devastating'

Filling the supply void will take time, however, and in the meantime chocolate lovers should expect to feel the pinch.

But the real victims, say activists like Fountain, are the small-time growers in Ivory Coast and Ghana, who have few options as they watch their incomes evaporate.

"The situation for farmers in West Africa is disastrous," said Fountain. "It is just absolutely devastating."