Start of Cocoa Season in Cameroon Raises Pay Concerns

Cocoa workers here cite low pay. Women, who are involved in the beginning stages of the process, say they have no idea what products their labor yields.

Publication Date

Start of Cocoa Season in Cameroon Raises Pay Concerns

Publication Date

KONGE, CAMEROON – As the cocoa-breaking season begins, Rose Ocha, 29, gets her equipment ready. Ocha is a farmer and professional cocoa breaker in Konge, a village in Cameroon’s Southwest region.

She moves from one farm to another, almost on a daily basis for breaking. Whether long distances or short distances to farms, she ventures there to earn an income, as this is her sole means to support herself and her children.

“I always make sure my broking [sic] materials are all ready before the season starts,” she says, starting to smile. “My basin, short cutlass and farm clothing are to me as a pen and book is to a student.”

Ocha, born and raised in Cameroon by Nigerian parents, has been breaking cocoa for the past five years. She says that the work is strenuous, but she has no other alternatives to make a living.

“I don’t like what I do, to tell you the truth,” she says. “Sometimes, I go home tired and sick, and the money that I am paid for that day is not even enough to take care of my medical bills.”

Ocha says the most taxing part of the work is transporting the wet cocoa beans from the park where they break the pods to the ovens, which are sometimes far away.

“Can you imagine that we carry about 40 kilograms of wet cocoa bean on our heads to transport to ovens?” she asks.

She says this sometimes leaves the women with body pains and even fevers.

Plus, she says the pay is not proportional to the labor. The women receive 1,000 francs ($2) to 2,000 francs ($4) – depending on the distance of the oven – for about 80 kilograms of cocoa beans that they break and transport. She says the market price is much higher, though, adding that farmers earn the sizable difference.

“For every 71,400 francs ($140) that the farmer makes, the broker is paid approximately 1,500 francs ($3),” she says. “I think they are exploiting us.”

She says if she had an alternative job, she would quit breaking cocoa.

Families in the region rely on the cocoa industry to make a living. They say pay is low, but they don’t have any employment alternatives. Many women here say they have no idea what products their hard work yields. Cocoa buyers say cocoa oil, butter and dust have many uses, from candy to cosmetics.

In Konge, like many other villages in the region, cocoa is the primary cash crop. Families depend entirely on income from cocoa for food, education, medical care and shelter. Cocoa farmers start harvesting and selling small quantities of their produce in July, but the largest harvests that bring in the majority of their income don’t come until October, November and December. In January, the farmers are left with barren trees and begin the process again.

When farm managers harvest the ripe fruits of their cocoa trees, women like Ocha come break the pods, extract the wet cocoa seeds and transport them to the ovens. Many say it’s their only option for earning a living despite the physically strenuous work.

Ruth Ambe, a 56-year-old widow, also makes a living breaking cocoa pods.

“I have been broking [sic] cocoa for more than 20 years,” she says. “It is a steady income that I make every cocoa season for my family. It helps me sponsor my children and also to buy food and other things for the family.”

She says it’s her only option for employment because of her limited education.

“Though the pay is small, as I can say, I can’t stop doing it because I did not go to school enough to secure an office job,” she says. “Cocoa broking [sic] is my office job.”

Men then perform the cocoa fermentation and drying stages in the ovens. Many women say they don’t even know what the end products of their cocoa labor are.

According to the World Atlas of Chocolate produced by Simon Fraser University in Canada, 80 percent of the world’s chocolate is produced by six transnational companies, like Nestlé. Europeans alone eat 40 percent of the world’s cocoa every year, 85 percent of which is imported from West Africa.

The local women who play a critical role in the production of such cocoa say they just know that the final product is sent to the “White man’s country” after processing.

“What do they do with this cocoa that we broke every year?” she asks. “All I know is that they take it to the White man’s country. What the White man does with it is what I don’t know.”

She laughs.

Ngando Olubi, a cocoa buyer and researcher, says many products come from cocoa.

“When processed, we have cocoa butter,” he says, “which is used to make rubbing oils and cosmetics.”

He says that cocoa dust is the waste from this process, but that it is used to make products such as Ovaltine and Bournvita.

“Chocolate is a proportional combination of cocoa oil, butter and dust,” he says.

Ambe says that the money she has earned from breaking cocoa has done a lot for her, though other women like Ocha assert that farmers earn disproportionate profits in the market.

But Peter Penda, a cocoa farm owner, says global prices are low, and expenditure is high.

“We pay harvesters, we pay packers, we pay brokers, we pay for food for broker, we pay driers, we pay oven charge, we pay carriers to transport the dry cocoa bean from oven to the buyers, we pay farm tenants,” he says. “We spend so much money that in [the] end, we are left with peanuts.”

Penda says some people do not understand the burden that farmers face. He says he is appealing to the government to increase prices for cocoa so that everyone in the production process can earn a fair wage.