Missing Kilos: How state-owned Produce Buying Companies fleece cocoa buyers

An age-old canker with purchasing clerks and licensing buying companies deeply involved. It appears no one wants to talk about – the adjustment of weighing scales to fleece cocoa growers. But, with the income of over 700 thousand farmers at stake, someone must lift the lid off the cocoa cartel. This is because Ghana Cocoa Board has secured an amount of $1.3 billion for the purchase of cocoa beans for the 2017/2018 crop season.

My name is Kwetey Nartey and in this hotline documentary, I go undercover with weighing stones, a bag of cement and a jute sack filled with cocoa to establish the hard truth of how defective scales are being used to cheat farmers in the Western, Eastern and Ashanti regions. These tools have fixed weight and it’s intended to expose any flaws in the weighing scales of the various licensing buying companies.

There’re more of these unscrupulous purchasing clerks scattered in villages and towns of major cocoa-growing regions. I’m driving to Ankasa, a cocoa growing area situated in Elubo and 50 kilometers away from the Jomoro District of Western region.

It’s an evergreen forest with bright sunshine all over. Being the area with the highest rainfall in Ghana, Ankasa is the richest forest in terms of diversity in Ghana. It’s also home to hundreds of cocoa farmers. The sad truth, however, is they live in squalor.

Paul Cudjoe is Chairman of the Jomoro Cocoa Farmers Association. I have come to meet him at Frenchman, a village surrounded by ground plant and bushes. He’s looking frail with grey hair. He’s wearing a coffee button shirt.

He laments produce clerks are breaching government’s official unit at which cocoa should be weighed. He says clerks in his community weigh cocoa at 70 kilogram instead of 64 kilogram. This means a farmer loses 11 kilos on every bag when the adjustment steals five kilos in addition. The farmers are powerless, he said.

According to World Bank, poverty reduction among cocoa farmers is clear. Household surveys indicate that poverty among cocoa-producing households dropped to 23.9 percent in 2005, down from 60.1 percent at the beginning of the 1990s. The situation may be different if such survey is conducted today. Many farmers like Paul are demoralized by the cheating of cocoa growers by produce clerks. He spends more to ensure the cocoa trees bud for the next harvesting season than he earns. He blames Cocobod for failing to check this exploitation.

Paul is not the only cocoa planter carrying this baggage of resentment for produce clerks. I have come to meet Stephen Nyarko who shares similar sentiments. He looks slim but radiant in his local brown tie and dye shirt. He makes 10 bags from his cocoa farm after each harvesting season. Clerks in his community weigh cocoa at 70 kilograms.

Painfully, they’ve adjusted their scales which steal an additional five kilograms from every bag. This means the unfair pricing and adjustment of scales by produce clerks makes him lose over 100 kilos on every 10 bags of cocoa he sends to the purchasing sheds.

He claps his hands in despair. He is always reeling under financial burden because he is cheated at the sheds. He tells me its difficult raising monies to pay for the fees of his children and taking care of the basic needs at the home.

The adjustment of scales is an open secret in this community. Joshua Prah was once a produce clerk at Old Ankasa at Elubo. He looks like he’s in his late 50s. He is welcoming and willing to reveal the secret of how they adjust the weighing scales. He says they adjust the scale to ensure they don’t make a loss. According to him, the licensed depots do not comply with the rules set by COCOBOD. They weigh a bag of cocoa at 67 kilos instead of 64 kilos.

This compels them to weigh what the farmer brings to their sheds at 70 kilograms. He confesses to stealing five kilos in addition to make extra money. It’s time to bust purchasing clerks in this dubious activity.

I have brought the cocoa to the first shed at Amokwa. A man in his early 40s offers to buy the cocoa. He’s wearing a red strapped long sleeve. He volunteers to carry the cocoa. He takes me to a mud thatched house. He doesn’t own his own shed. He weighs the cocoa at home. He slashes the bag of cocoa open with a knife and lifts it onto the scale. A bag of 70 kg is reading 64 kg on his scale. He’s demanding extra 5kg despite stealing 6kg through the adjustment of the scale.

Am at the border town of Elubo. I want to test how pervasive this canker is in this region.

This 6.4 feet purchasing clerk works with private licensing buying company fulldor. His shed looks like an old church block. It hasn’t been whitewashed for a long while.  He’s taking stock of several bags of cocoa here, but, he stops to attends us.  He drops the bag of cocoa on an old rusty scale. The 70 kilo cocoa weighs 56 kilograms. Fourteen kilograms is stolen on every bag brought to this shed.

Am at the state licensing buying company PBC. It’s a one storey block painted yellow and pink with a rusty roof. A stout looking produce clerk wearing an orange lacoste and blue denim jeans greets us with a smile. He indicates that he weighs a bag of cocoa at 67 kilograms instead of the official 64 kilogram unit set. Shockingly the reading on the scale is 58 kilograms. A 12 kilogram difference. He indicates he will be deducting an extra kilo to dry the beans because they’re not well dried.

It’s not only the state owned Produce Buying Company that’s guilty of this dubious act, but more private licensing buying companies seem neck deep in the trade. I have brought the 70 kilogram bag of cocoa to one of the private licence buying companies – Olam Cocoa.  The officials operate in a makeshift wooden structure.

The purchasing clerk in a black T-shirt and short faded jeans sits on some bags of cocoa. He directs we drop the bag of cocoa on the scale. He boasts their scale has not adjustment. But, shortly after the arrow dropped, the 70 kilo bag weighed 61 kilograms. He indicates he will deduct an extra 3 kilos bringing the figure to 12 kilos which he would be stealing from the team.

These questionable dealings of produce clerks of private and public licensing buying companies are not peculiar to the Western region. I’m heading to the Ashanti region to find out what the situation pertains there.

I’m here at Ejisu Juabeng. One of the cocoa growing areas in the Ashanti region. It’s 20 kilometres away from the capital, Kumasi. It’s predominantly a farming community home to over 140,000 Ghanaians. Thick forest and palm vegetation greet me as I drive into the community. It’s a brisk business here but there is deep-seated concerns among cocoa farmers who take their bags of cocoa for weighing.

Kofi Mpiani is the Juaben District Chief Cocoa Farmer. He looks dark and seems to be in his late forties. He’s wearing a yellow strapped Lacoste and a black trouser. His smile he greeted me with wears off the moment I raised the subject of adjusting of scales by purchasing clerks. He says the practice is endemic. But, he is of the view that the clerks tamper with the scales as a means of passing the interest on loans they take from the banks to pay for their cocoa.

The implication is – he struggles to cater to the needs of his large family size. He believes if government delegates powers to district chief farmers to deal with purchasing clerks who are engaged in the practice, it will make it unattractive.

Even before this desire held by Juaben district chief cocoa farmer would materialize, his son Kofi Adjin says will not be taking over his father’s trade when he retires. According to him, they live a life of misery.

I will be finding out what the disincentive is in this district that’s discouraging even children of cocoa growers from taking the mantle after their fathers hang their machetes and hoes. I will be using a 50kilogram bag of cement to test the scales of the various private and public licensing buying companies.

I’m driving to Kroforom. It’s a dusty patch with overgrown bushes on both sides of the road.  I have come to a mud-built shed belonging to purchasing clerk with Yonkopa licensing buying company. He looks stout with a potbelly. He’s wearing a blue coloured shirt. He’s gripped with fear after we detect adjustment in his scale. The 50-kilogram bag of cement registers 45 kilos after the readings. This means he steals 5 kilos from every farmer.

After busting him in the act, he confesses that he adjusts the scale to make up for the cost of transportation to meetings and drying of the cocoa beans. He argues if they’re provided allowances by the licensing buying company, he will cease the practice.

The adjustment of scales seems to be commonplace in this community. I’ve been directed to another produce clerk who works with Ajumapa licensing buying company. He’s tall and is wearing a checked shirt. He leads us to a traditional semi-detached house where he keeps his scale. After dropping the bag of cement on the scale, the 50-kilogram bag reads 45 kilos.

He mounts a strong defence for his actions when questioned. He says it’s a company policy they adjust the scale.

He makes a startling revelation. He’s been in the business for 20 years. According to him, eight major licensing buying companies he’s aware of, have all adjusted their scales.

I move to Ofoase. There are more produce clerks stealing from cocoa planters here. I take the 50-kilogram bag of cement to the main shed in this community. Its mud house but appears collapsing. The purchasing clerk is bare-chested and wearing loosely hanging black trousers. He looks surprised at our presence. The bag of cement exposes the defects in his scale the moment I drop it on weighing device. It reads 43 kilos.

He also works with the Yonkopa Licensing Buying Company. He sings the same chorus that they adjust the scale because the farmers do not dry their beans properly.

Are cocoa growers in this community aware of this practice is the question I put to the Juaben Kroforom District Chief Farmer Kwaku Boateng. He’s deeply worried about findings they’re fleeced seven kilograms on every bag of cocoa.

Interestingly, seventy percent of the world cocoa production is produced by small holders in West Africa.Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the largest producers, followed by Nigeria and Cameroon. Cocoa is the most important agricultural commodity Ghana produces and the mainstay of Ghana’s economy. Cocoa is Ghana’s second leading foreign exchange earner, worth about 30 percent of all revenue from export and responsible for about 57 percent of overall agricultural export.

The sector, directly and indirectly, employs about two million people and constitutes a large chunk of Ghana’s GDP. But, they reap peanuts. The expectation of many farmers is for Ghana Cocoa Board to crack the whip. That has been slow in coming. Public Affairs Manager at Cocobod Noah Amenyah says their recent surveillance in some regions reveal almost all the licensing buying companies have adjusted their scales.

The argument of the purchasing clerks throughout this investigation is that they fleece the cocoa growers because their beans are not well dried. The law regulating the purchase of cocoa indicates that it must be thoroughly dried before it’s weighed. Noah Amenyah again.

Another institution tasked by the Ghana Cocoa Board to check the validity of scales is the Ghana Standards Authority. In fact, the Standards Authority is paid to check whether the scales are accurate before they certify it.

But, I discovered that scales that were certified by the Standards Authority had been adjusted in the Eastern regional town of Mepon. It’s a sprawling community. It can boast of basic amenities such as potable drinking water and electricity. The mainstay of the people here are farmers. But many are impoverished. Cocoa growers lay the blame squarely at the doorsteps of purchasing clerks.

They may be right. After dropping the 60-kilogram weighing stones of the scale of the state-owned PBC, a scale which has passed by the Standards Authority reads 52 kilos. Mawuli Titiateh is the produce clerk manning this shed. He’s wearing a brown dotted shirt. He tells me he’s unaware the scale is faulty.

I’m at the shed of an official of Olam Cocoa. He wears bushy hair and slim looking. He lifts the three 20 kilo weighing stones one after the other onto his scale. Instead of the scale reading 60 kilograms, it shows 52. It means he steals 8 kilos from every bag of cocoa.

His explanation is that a mouse had stuffed pieces of cloth inside the scale and that, might have accounted for the defect.

I have come to the Kuapa Kooko Farmers Union shed. It’s situated in at the heart of the scattered settlement. The purchasing clerk is not happy about the idea of wanting to test the validity of his scale. The reason was obvious after offloading the weighing stones on the scale. The 60 kilogram stone registers as 53 kilos. He also claims he’s unaware the scale is faulty.

A few meters away Kuapa Kooko shed is the Akuapa licensing buying company. It’s been managed by two teenage boys wearing singlets. I test their scale which had also been passed by the Standards Authority. It reads 54 kilograms. But, there is an explanation. The senior produce clerk Emmanuel Mensah says they adjust the scale to make extra money to pay their wages.

Nodjo Emmanuel is a produce clerk and farmer at Asikansu in the Eastern region. He looks energetic. I have come to his shed to speak to him about this age-old canker. He’s bitter over the unfair tactics employed by the purchasing clerks to cheat farmers. The clerks also steal 10 kilos in this community.

He believes the authorities are aware of the cheating of the farmers at the sheds. But, do little in checking it after detecting the discrepancies.

It’s time to check the depots who are being accused by the purchasing clerks for being the cause of their woes. I first tested the scales of Abrabopa Kumakuma, Ajumapa, and Akuapa. They all weighed exactly 64 kilograms. The state-owned PBC depot had adjusted its scale. It read 57 kilograms after I dropped the 60 kilo weighing stones. This means the depot steals three kilos from their purchasing clerks. Though the three depots operated a free scale, the district managers confess they weigh the cocoa at an unofficial 66 kilograms.

I reported my findings to the Ghana Standards Authority. Paul Michael Darteh is Head of Scientific Metrology. He says they we’ll dispatch their inspectors to verify and will take the necessary action if found to be true.

In 2014, I investigated this deep-seated corruption perpetuated by produce clerks. Three years down the line, little was done by the Ghana Cocoa Board to punish the defaulting clerks. It’s now worse than my first encounter. Am back at Ankasa in the Jomoro District of the Western region, frail-looking Paul Cudjoe suggests COCOBOD should make it rule that every produce clerk must have a weighing stone at their shed to enable farmers to check the whether the scales have been adjusted.

But there’s a different suggestion. Nodjo Emmanuel the farmer turned purchasing clerk rather wants government to wage a campaign against fleecing of cocoa planters like the fight against galamsey.

Clearly, if the 1.3 billion dollars secured for the purchase of cocoa beans will make any difference in the lives cocoa growers across the country, government through COCOBOD must take bold steps to protect the purse off the poor cocoa planter.

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