Why Start a Chocolate Factory in Ghana?

by Steve Wallace on March 26, 2009

Why start a chocolate factory in Ghana?  A fair question that begs all sorts of answers from the comic (” … well, if I had wanted to do it the easy way … “) to the mercantile (”because I thought I could make better, fresher chocolate”). There is truth in both statements. But I get ahead of myself. 

I was 29 and had graduated from law school at the height of a buyer’s market for such services. I graduated from a campus that gave rise to its own intellectual movement—the Chicago School—a rigorous, analytical examination of human behavior whose legal incarnation, Law and Economics, sought to apply cost/benefit and incentive-based analysis to everything from rent controls to the market for adoptable babies. Even though I was far from the top of my class, I had my choice of job offers and received a raise prior to even starting work, because prospective employers were so fearful of losing a recruit to a competing firm. A classmate quipped that we were like shrimp at a cocktail party—always in demand and never enough to go around.

After two years working at a tax boutique in Washington, D.C. I found I was drawn to the clients more than to the other attorneys—jealous of the many challenges they faced and the many skills they needed get through the day. I craved a bit of the uncertainty they confronted while I looked ahead to years of mastering the tax code, a multi-volume compendium printed on onion skin paper that took up nearly a foot of shelf space. I’d thumb the crinkly paper as I pored over sections of the code, like a Talmudic scholar, translating the parentheticals and double negatives until I was able to glean some morsel of Congressional intent. 

I lost myself in arcane sections of the tax law and found high comedy in the nearly indecipherable clauses. I spent a lot of time working on Section 4064, the Gas Guzzler Tax and found that while a heavy, gasoline-swilling car such as a Rolls-Royce or Maserati would qualify for the tax—no surprise there—the stretch limousine lobby had inserted a clause that would allow you to take that self-same Rolls, cut it in half, convert into a stretch limousine that was even more fuel inefficient than the original and thereby avoid the Gas Guzzler tax altogether because “stretch limousines” were exempt from the Gas Guzzler tax. Thank you Chicago—I could spot an unintended incentive when I saw one, not that this gave me any solace, to the contrary. 

I confess I was drawn to tax law because I was, on some level, simply a voyeur of wealth. Rich people hire tax lawyers, and I was curious about how the well-heeled lived and worked. It was not uncommon to be summoned to a client’s home to sign wills and linger over a cup of Earl Grey on tufted sofas in living rooms lifted from Versailles while we signed documents and traded aperçus. On the other hand, I had a desire to accomplish something significant, and I didn’t feel as if that was likely if I stayed where I was. I also looked ahead and realized I could see exactly what the next 30 years of my life was going to be like. It was a scary thought. 

As a result, at the ripe and wise age of 29, I quit my law career … and returned to a place that I had long held in great affection.

“A fish doesn’t think about water until he’s out of it”

This quotation from Robert Penn Warren sums up my reasons for wanting to go to Africa back in 1978. At the age of 16, it was time to consider who I was, the kind of person I wanted to become, and to reflect upon that elusive concept of what it might mean to be a citizen of the United States of America. It was time to get out of the water …

I won an AFS student exchange scholarship and was sent to live with the Brobbey family in Ghana. They were traditional in many ways. For starters, my host father had three wives and 21 children. We ate outside everyday, cooking over an open fire. And on July 3, 1978—in a sort of curious, preemptive salute to the celebration of the U.S. Independence Day—the existing military government of Ghana was overthrown by a military coup d’etat.

It would be easy to assume from these facts that Ghana was a very different place from my hometown of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. But that would be wrong.

Despite these rather striking accents, the mosaic that was my Ghana experience is made up of largely unremarkable bits of stone and glass: I have only to close my eyes, and I am transported back to a Ghana both evocative and magical. I awake to the sound of roosters cawing in the fresh light of morning. I see my host father shaving in the courtyard of our compound, his young daughters bringing him hot water from the charcoal fire. Big Yao Brobbey, shirtless, smiling, massaging his Santa Claus belly and extemporizing on all matters of life, love and commerce. I still walk through the town of Sunyani to my best friend Isaac’s and help his mother bake bread in the mud oven behind their home while the static-spiced BBC World Service radio program competed with the neighbor’s incessant Bob Marley cassettes, creating a rich symphonic stew: one part colonial patrimony and two parts reggae pepper. Schoolchildren run over to me, yelling “kwesi buroni”, because it was so unusual to see a white face in Sunyani in 1978. “Good Morning, sir!” they’d exclaim merrily, as they’d press their chubby fingers into my skin to see my tan skin blush pink at their touch.

Though I left Ghana after three months, Ghana never left me. During and after college, I wanted to find a way to go back with purpose. I considered the Foreign Service, but the chance of rotating to Ghana was slim. As I began to work, I came to realize that building a business in Ghana—my own business—would be the best way to allow me to return. In 1991, I began to research options. Ghana has vast bauxite, diamond and gold deposits. But I didn’t know anything about diamonds. And I lacked the technical expertise and money to establish an aluminum smelter or gold mine. Then I learned that Ghana grows what are considered to be the finest cocoa beans in the world. Yet, Ghana struggles because the value of the country’s cocoa exports is largely determined by events beyond the control of Ghanaian farmers. The vagaries of world commodity markets are governed by factors such as weather and crop parasites, both of which affect the world supply of cocoa and thus influence greatly the price that a Ghanaian cocoa farmer receives for his beans. I wanted to use my expertise to create a product whose selling price would not be so closely linked to world commodity price pressure. To the extent that I could do so, both my Ghanaian partners and I would benefit.

It hit me all at once. Chocolate bars. Why hadn’t Ghana developed chocolate bars to successfully compete on the world market?  Once I considered the idea of chocolate bars made in Ghana, I simply couldn’t let go. Sure, Switzerland makes fine chocolate, but how many cocoa trees actually grow in Zurich?

By manufacturing in Ghana, a country-of-origin, we could, within a matter of days, take fresh cocoa beans, ferment them in the traditional manner (between banana leaves on the forest floor), then dry the beans in the warm African sun before carefully roasting them at our factory in Ghana, located just a short distance from the farms where these magical beans are grown.

I had always enjoyed cooking but had no formal training in food science. Nonetheless, I set about to “follow my bliss”—an eighteen-year odyssey that would ultimately test all of my faculties. It has not been easy, and eighteen years is hardly an “overnight” success. Indeed, had I been working for Nestle’s or Hershey’s, let’s be honest, I would have been fired long ago. I believe that the Omanhene venture is one that could only succeed in an entrepreneurial setting, and that the ability to dream big—very big—and to think audaciously, are traits quite common to any journey that begins without a map.

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Chocolate Dreams | No Map. No Guide. No Limits.
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1 Nancy 03.30.09 at 7:16 pm

I was fascinatied by this story of returning to the experience of your youth and following your dream. It is so well told I can almost see the family around the cooking fire. And then to have the courage to make the leap from the unsatisfying (to you) world of tax law to the risky start of a unique home-grown chocolate business in Ghana ! This is food for the soul.

I hope you will tell us more about this adventure - what it took to start it and what it took to stay with it to make it successful. Nancy

2 Miles 04.20.09 at 8:32 pm

I am inspired by your story. May I have your e-mail address. I want to start my own chocolate factory here in the Philippines. Our region, Bicol Region, is also being piloted by the Cacao farmer’s community to become supplier of cacao beans for export to the USA. I want to start my cacao plantation. I just need guidance in this field. I am really interested to pioneer here in our region. I am a graduate of Nutrition and Dietetics. I am currently working in the food industry particularly in the food manufacturing. Maybe through your expertise, I can start building my dream. I thank you in advance. I am hoping for your response.

3 Steve Wallace 05.03.09 at 7:58 pm

Nancy:

Thank you very much for your kind words — I’ve been reflected on just what it took to bring the project along. Short answer is a combination of fear of failure, a healthy dose of naivete (if I had come to this venture from inside the confectionery industry, I would have likely never taken the plunge) and finally a sort of stubborness borne of a need to prove to myself and perhaps others that I knew what I was doing. The challenges of the business have precluded my finishing my next post and the process of self-examination that I think you expect takes a good bit of time to set out in a cogent piece of writing. But your words of encouragement mean a lot to me and I will post again soon.

4 Steve Wallace 05.03.09 at 8:00 pm

Miles:

Thank you very much for your comment. I’ve replied to you directly in an effort to more specifically address your remarks. I’m happy to try and assist and at the very least offer encouragement. I’ve provided my email so you can contact me directly.

5 Jim 05.25.09 at 10:17 pm

I found your story truly inspiring. Bless your stubborness! Like Miles, I have been myself feeling the urge to start a cacao plantation and chocolate factory in the Philippines, and I quite identify myself with that feeling of not being able to let the idea go. You may know there was once a flourishing cacao industry in the Philippines (yes mostly in Bicol, Davao and Maripili islands), and it would be a dream to contribute to its rebirth, in spite of all the obstacles. I’m naive enough to be willing to give it a try ;-). Wish I knew Miles also.

I cant wait to hear more from you.

6 Kofi Nyarko 07.26.09 at 5:54 am

Your story is really inspiring Mr. Wallace,i’m a citizen of Ghana currently in the United States and it baffles me how come i haven’t come across chocolate bars made in Ghana in the stores across this wonderful country. Chocolate has always being my passion and it would be a dream come true if i could somehow get into this as a buisness,i don’t know anything about the chocolate buisness like you when you first started about three decades ago,but i believe you’ve learnt a thing or two since then.Could you please give me your email address so i could somehow learn a thing or two from you. Thanks for thie post.

7 Patrice Schneider 08.04.09 at 2:26 pm

I would like to find out what the fruit of your passion turned into? Please let me know as I involved in development for Ghana.

Thanks Patrice

8 kwadjo 09.07.09 at 8:51 am

mr. wallace,
i think i’m getting impatient to get know you. i am 21 and still in
college in accra. this idea came to me about a year ago and
have looking for someone like to consult. i just googled how to
start a choco factory and came upon you. i come from a cocoa
producing area and it my biggest for now. how can i get in touch
with you? thanks for reading and i will be expecting to hear from
you.

9 Steve 09.10.09 at 1:43 pm

Kwadjo:

Thank you for your comment. I can be reached via the Omanhene website, http://www.omanhene.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Best,
Steve

10 Karel Tormey 10.20.09 at 9:11 pm

I would like to know where your chocolate factory is at. We will be in Ghana Africa, Aworowa and Techiman in January of 2010. We would like to visit, if it is at all possible.
I too was bit by the wonderful country and people of Ghana. This is our third missionary trip to this region.
Thanks
Karel Tormey

11 gemma 12.18.09 at 4:05 pm

I just want to know if Miles already started her project in Bikol. I am interested to see your farm in Bikol. I am also looking for food consultant that can help develop the prparation of cocoa based foods as i am into advocacy of developing micro entreprenuers who are selling to mass cocoa based products.

12 Victor Yao Apeletey 11.01.10 at 7:09 pm

Hello Wallace,
Interesting piece.By the way if I may know,is your chocolate factory situated in Ghana?If yes,how come we don’t find your products on the Ghanaian market but we only see the Golden Tree Chocolate from the Cocoa Processing Company?

13 Mary 02.03.11 at 10:01 am

Hi Steve,
What an inspiring story! I am writing an adventure series for children and it involves your chocolate factory in Tema! The Adventures of Monty Horton (three books already on Amazon) follows a pre-teen on his adventures, making meaning out of scientific discoveries: I’d love for you to look at my website and if you are interested in perhaps writing a forward for me, that would be so awesome.

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Mary

14 Rosalia 12.09.11 at 4:30 am

Hello,

What a great story ! I recently moved to Ghana and was looking into opening my bakery . I found it really hard to find locally some good chocolate sold in bulk which made me think into chocolate companies. How come a country of cocoa has no good chocolate ?
Does anyone know where in Accra can we find good baking chocolate bars ?
I am so inspired

15 tupae steve 05.19.12 at 9:44 am

Like you Steve, I left a career as a wildlife vet, went to Samoan Islands in the Pacific (from Australia) soon after leaving Kenya (just on safari) and now trying to make chocolate in Samoa….the Germans at least grew the cocoa here 100 years ago and in a few weeks time (1-5 June, 2012) we celebrate our 50th Independence Anniversary from the new Zealanders who whipped Samoa off the Germans (1914). Here’s my story:
Most tropical cocoa growing countries are yet to be introduced to successful and profitable chocolate making export ventures. Samoa is no exception, however, its plans to produce its own trinitario chocolate bars (albeit initially manufactured in Melbourne Australia by http://www.mamorchocolates.com). These 50g chocolate bars have just been packaged in time to play a small role in Samoa’s 50th Anniversary of Independence (June 1-5th 2012). Plans to build a climate-controlled chocolate factory in Samoa are underpinned by a national effort to introduce bioenergy technologies in Samoa’s agricultural sector (see http://www.biogen3.com). The eventual target is a carbon neutral organic fair trade trinitario Fine and Flavoursome (FF) chocolate bar with “fruity” taste. Chocolate making equipment from http://www.cacaocucina.com (Florida) is being targeted. For further information and any offers of help, please contact stevebrownsamoa@gmail.com - one angel investor of $USD1.45Million is welcomed and a comprehensive bankable business plan has been prepared. Samoa’s cocoa growers’ livelihoods are at stake here with global cocoa bean prices remaining as low as $USD2300/tonne whilst most chocolate bars retail at over $USD100,000/tonne (i.e. $USD10/100g bar). We in the developing world want you to buy our Samoa Chocolate to help support sustainable development in the South Pacific Countries. Faafetai tele lava and thank you all.

16 Ohene Firempong 01.26.14 at 4:04 pm

I have lived in the US for over 25 years and getting ready to move back to Ghana. I have been exploiting a few other ventures and chocolate happens to be one of them. There a reason why Golden Tree Chocolate did not make it on the world market- tariffs.
I have even been looking into how I can add value to the empty cocoa pods that are thrown away. I used to make soap whiles I was in High School in Ghana, you may know where I am heading.

Does the Ghana government allow individuals to buy cocoa beens and used them as they wish?

17 ono-asi 01.18.15 at 6:05 pm

Hi Steve, your story is so inspiring, I came across your write up in my search for a ghanaian company that makes chocolate for baking purposes….hoping to buy to use in my cake making creations, and be a distributor of the product in my home country Nigeria, where there’s a good demand for this ingredient in chocolate cakes and desert, but little or no supply in the market. Five years down the line, have you succeeded? … Would love to be a part of your team cos I’m presently living in Ghana and running a home-based business on cake making.
Please do reply or send me an email on (onocywiz@yahoo.co.uk ).

18 Sandra Agbolosu 09.10.15 at 11:48 am

Am soo much inspired by your story. I had also thought of returing back to homeland ghana to build a food processong company and with your story , i released you got more ideais about producing chocolate and i would want this same production so please send me your email or you can email me so i can get more knowlede from you.Thank you

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