Why Start A Chocolate Factory In Ghana?
Why start a chocolate factory in Ghana? An 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, had graduated from law school at the height of a buyer’s market for such services. 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, so fearful were employers of losing a recruit to a competing firm. 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. 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 University of 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.
It is not surprising that after a time, I found my work unfulfilling. My desire to accomplish something significant – an arrogant conceit, admittedly – prompted me to leave the law and eventually return to a place that I had long held in great affection. It was time to return to Ghana.
“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 in a sort of curious, preemptive salute to the celebration of the U.S. Independence Day, on July 3, 1978, 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, WI But that would be wrong.
Compared with these rather striking accents, the mosaic that is 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” so unusual was it 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, first as a lawyer and then in business, 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 lacked the technical expertise and the 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.
If you are interested in other stories from people drawn to taking journeys without maps, I encourage you to visit the engaging website No Map, No Guide, No Limits.