"I have travelled far away from home to be at this important gathering. A few years ago, it would have been impossible for me, a woman, to attend this cocoa farming-related programme," a female cocoa farmer, Charity Ofori, told Cocoa Post.
Cocoa Life is the sustainability programme of global chocolate giant Mondelez International.
A contagious aura of excitement filled the atmosphere as the women motioned in majestic Adowa dance steps in perfect unison to rhythms emanating from the talking drums of a Kete ensemble.
One would learn soon that underneath the excitement all these amazing women in cocoa exuded, were untold stories of life transformation.
Interestingly, the individual change stories of their lives had brought them from various parts of the country to converge on Goaso, the prolific cocoa-producing town in the Ahafo Region, which played host to a mini-congress of Cocoa Life animators to coincide with the 2022 International Women's Day.
Currently, Charity is the proud owner of a nine-acre cocoa farm at Kofi-Asare, a community in the West Akyem District in the Eastern Region.
The 50-year-old mother of four has worked in cocoa production for almost a decade but had farmed local staples five years before.
Aside from farming, Charity now doubles as the Vice-President of the Odumkyere Damang Cocoa farmers' Society. That's not all; she is also the Assistant Treasurer of the West Akyem District Farmers Union, while at the national level, she is the President of a 1,636-member association of Community Animators comprising 15 unions.
Community animators are trained volunteers who serve as focal persons in their communities for farming and development activities.
While there appears to be a growing number of empowered female cocoa farmers in Ghana, Charity admits it has not always been the case.
Ghana is the second-largest cocoa producer in the world with a vibrant cocoa industry value chain.
The role of women in cocoa production is very essential - from pre-harvest, harvest and post-harvest activities - but are often unrecognised.
The Ghanaian society is predominantly patriarchal, and thus the contribution of women socially and economically is overlooked.
It is within this context that Charity Ofori sees her attendance at the Cocoa Life community animators congress at Goaso as highly significant because women were previously excluded from such opportunities.
"It all started about 14 years ago under the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, when VSO visited our community and enrolled us for training as Women Extension Volunteers (WEV)," Charity recalled.
She narrated that the project was later reviewed and rebranded as the Mondelez International Cocoa Life Programme with new implementing partners.
One of the earliest implementing partners was ABANTU for Development, a women's rights organisation, which introduced a novel initiative called the Gender Dialogue Platform to empower women.
Charity recounted, "During one of the initial Gender Dialogue Platform training workshops, the facilitator asked that we close our eyes and dream of our future.
And it was in that dream that I perceived my purpose as a leader."
"With hard work and consistent coaching and encouragement by programme managers, that dream 10 years ago is now my reality, thanks to Cocoa Life," Charity stated, adding, "And I won't stop dreaming," she said.
Also from the Eastern Region, Doris Korkor Nyame talks of how activities under the Gender Dialogue Platform introduced by Cocoa Life plucked her out of shyness and low self-esteem into local government leadership.
She start as a WEV and later as a community animator, where she contested and won the election as the society Vice Chairperson.
With the ice now broken, Doris zoomed onto the local government election, contesting three males, as the sole female candidate, in a race for the assembly member position of the Kofipare electoral area.
"The odds were against me. Some candidates doled out inducements. But consistent with the gender training, I focused on effectively communicating my message to the electorate. I won and earned the title ‘honourable’ assembly member," her eyes gleamed with pride.
Grace Ameyaw, 54, joined the Animators congress from Juaboso, a key cocoa-growing town in the Western North Region.
She joined Cocoa Life in 2015 and was particularly thrilled with the activities of the Gender Dialogue Platform.
"Through their additional livelihood training programmes, I now possess 15 vocational skills, including soap making, baking and cosmetics, among others," Grace said.
According to Grace, everything seemed to be going well until the Cocoa Swollen Virus Disease (CSSVD) was detected on her nine-acre cocoa farm at Dangermu.
“The entire farm has been cut for replanting under Ghana Cocoa Board's National Cocoa Rehabilitation Programme,” she recalled and noted that although she was being compensated, the amount was not enough to sustain her family of six until the farm would become productive again three years from now.
For Angelina Asante of Asuodei community in the Asunafo North District of the Ahafo Region, Cocoa Life's consistent training on good agricultural practices, coupled with farm supplies and equipment has lessened the drudgery associated with cocoa farming.
She was also excited about the Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) scheme introduced in her community.
Under the VSLA, Angelina noted, members contributed monthly into a fund, out of which they could borrow at a five per cent interest rate to procure essential farm inputs or meet pressing financial obligations.
She again observed that through effective sensitisation, there was evidence of women's increasing participation in community development deliberations and decision making, whereas in the past, women had no representation.
The Cocoa Life Programme was launched in 2012 to invest $400 million to improve the livelihood and living conditions of 200,000 cocoa farmers while impacting one million community members in Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.
In Ghana, the programme currently operates in 820 cocoa communities with 75,000 participating farmers.
The Ghana Country Lead for Cocoa Life, Yaa Peprah Amekudzi, said membership of Cocoa Life societies was open to all cocoa farmers in partner communities, explaining it was the conduit by which necessary cocoa sustainability interventions by Mondelez could reach as many cocoa farmers as possible.
Although it does not buy cocoa beans directly from Cocoa Life partner farmers, Mondelez is among the major buyers of Ghana cocoa through its supply contract with Ghana Cocoa Board.
The writer is the Founder and Executive Director of Cocoa Post (www.theCocoaPost.com), a cocoa industry media, research and advocacy organisation.