Equal Potential, Unequal Opportunity

A Historical Analysis of Gender Imbalances in Ghanaian Cocoa Production

Women in cocoa.
Photo by K. Keukelaar in the village Mantukwa, Ghana.

West Africa is the greatest regional producer of cocoa in the world (Leissle 2018, p. 4). In Ghana alone, there are 720,000 farmers growing cocoa, 25 percent of which are women (Barrientos 2014, p. 796). Despite exhibiting both quality and productivity levels equal to if not greater than men, women’s income and farm ownership are severely disproportionate to men. Women sell a mean of 8 bags of cocoa per year, equalling ~$980 in annual income. Men, meanwhile, sell a mean of 23 bags of cocoa per year for an annual income of ~$2,817.50 (Leissle 2018, p. 23). Through an analysis of Ghana’s cocoa farming history, there are several sociopolitical factors that have led to the development of gender inequality in the sector. The combination of exogenous changes in the agricultural market and women’s social roles in farming and the household have shifted cocoa production power to men and constrained how women participate in the cocoa market. Traditional land inheritance laws have constrained women’s access to farming plots. Finally, the gendering of work in the cocoa sector has perpetuated the gender gap and prevented women from becoming independent cocoa farm owners. While the historical development of cocoa farming has led to these gender imbalances, the success of female cocoa farmers despite these adversities has spurred new initiatives to eliminate gender inequality in the cocoa sector.

Cocoa arrived in the Portuguese colonies of Sao Tome and Principe in the early 1800’s and expanded throughout mainland Africa by the end of the century. Before, most cocoa had been produced in South America and the Caribbean. During the nineteenth century, the abolishment of slavery throughout the region and disease such as witch’s broom severely limited the amount of cocoa South America and the Caribbean could provide. This supply restriction coincided with an acute increase in demand for cocoa. More successful marketing strategies and new innovations such as the Dutching process and the Swiss conche made smoother, creamier milk chocolate products that attracted more consumers. Since South America and the Caribbean could no longer support rising production demands, chocolate manufacturers turned their eyes to Africa, where cocoa trees had been found to flourish (Leissle 2018, p. 1–47).

West Africa saw a phenomenal rise in cocoa production first in Sao Tome and Principe. The cruel labor practices being encouraged on the islands were exposed in the early 1900’s, and British chocolate manufacturing giant Cadbury was forced to boycott cocoa from these islands as protests against these labor abuses rose. Major cocoa production moved to colonized regions of mainland West Africa as production subsequently declined in Sao Tome and Principe, particularly in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Cameroon (Leissle 2018, p. 40–42). Nigeria’s rise as a prominent cocoa producer was not solely the result of imperial pressure but also of farmer’s own enthusiasm to begin growing cocoa. Around the turn of the twentieth century, coffee and rubber prices were low while cocoa prices were steadily rising with Europe’s voracious demand for chocolate. Gold Coast farmers jumped on the opportunity, and cocoa became the most important export of any category by 1910 (Allman and Tashjian 2000, p. 3).

Agricultural goods in Ghana have historically been gendered such that either men or women are solely responsible for their respective crops and their proceeds. How these crops were gendered resulted from household roles. Women were responsible for childcare, food processing, cleaning, and other household chores. This gave men much more time for cultivating crops other than subsistence goods, and men indeed devoted this extra time women spent on household labor devoted to commodity production and trading. Women became increasingly involved in trading subsistence goods in local markets while men pursued more lucrative occupations in cocoa farming or waged work (Allman and Tashjian 2000, p. 13–14). This genderization of crops and general markets became culturally cemented over time, and cocoa farming became a male–dominated sector while subsistence farming and local market trading became a feminized domain. As cocoa farming became more valuable and generated a more substantive part of a household’s income, women and children became increasingly involved as informal laborers on the household cocoa farm, with the husband/father acting as the central, mediating figure through whom the value of wives’ and children’s labor was realized (Allman and Tashjian 2000, p. 106).

Women cocoa farmers lack equal land right access.
Photo by K. Keukelaar in the village Mantukwa, Ghana.

The increasingly valuable role of women and children in cultivating the household cocoa farm upset traditional land inheritance practices. Prior to colonization, Ghanaian land inheritance was typically matrilineal in which a husband’s family land would be bequeathed to his sister’s sons and rarely to his own wife and children. A husband’s self–acquired land, however, could be bequeathed to his children and wife if “he had been well–served by the child” (Allman and Tashjian 2000, p. 107). Self–acquired land became much more popular with the cocoa boom, as women cultivated family land for subsistence farming and men cultivated new additional land for the cocoa farms. By 1920–1930, the value of a deceased man’s self–acquired property rivalled and even surpassed family land, causing tension between potential matrilineal inheritors and the husband’s wife and children. This tension remained throughout the twentieth century, although a few laws were instituted to make bequeathing nonfamily land to a man’s wife and children easier. In the mid–1980’s, revisions to land inheritance laws were implemented to facilitate family land inheritance to female spouses, but few Ghanaians have actually appealed to this law (Allman and Tashjian 2000, p. 107–109). Due to this system of land inheritance, and because women rarely acquired land for themselves due to their responsibility to other household duties and expectations, land ownership laws and land acquisition processes in Ghana have inhibited women from pursuing farm ownership. More than 90 percent of cocoa comes from smallholder farmers who cultivate a few hectares of land or less, and women have faced more limited access to the already restricted allocation of land than men (Leissle 2018, p. 3).

The cultural gendering of important work in the cocoa sector has also limited women’s growth in the cocoa sector. Cocoa farming involves many steps, and as new agricultural innovations have been introduced into the sector, women’s work has been devalued. As more technological advancements such as the use of fertilizers and pesticides have been produced, women were delegated to planting and harvesting. The male–dominated mechanical application of pesticides and herbicides became more highly valued because these activities more noticeably increase yields in the short run (Barrientos 2014, p. 797). The most gender–restricted activity is the point of sale. Since men have come to control the market for cash crops as women have come to predominate the markets for subsistence goods, social norms usually demand that only men are involved at the point of cash exchange. As female cocoa farmers must enlist men to sell their cocoa, they may not realize their full earnings potential, especially when wives combine their cocoa output with their husbands, as these women cannot tell who earned how much (Leissle 2018, p. 121–122). Women’s cultural exclusion from the most lucrative activities and important positions of agency have continued to perpetuate gender inequality in cocoa farming.

Kuapa Kokoo seeks to empower female cocoa farmers.

Several historical socioeconomic forces led to the development of gender inequality in the cocoa sector, including exogenous changes to the agricultural market, land access, and the perpetuation of cultural and social conditions disadvantageous to female cocoa farmers. Today, however, many initiatives are taking place to close this gap. Chocolate manufacturing and processing giants Cadbury and Cargill, working with NGO Care, have supported female farmers’ cooperative groups since 2006 (Barrientos 2014, p. 6). Land in Ghana’s western region is being transferred significantly more often from husbands to wives and daughters instead of sons and matrilineal inheritors. Two LBCs in Ghana, Kuapa Kokoo and Akuafo Adamfo, encourage women’s participation at the point of sale (Leissle 2018, p. 122). While women’s advancement in the cocoa sector has been limited by socioeconomic factors, women’s increasing involvement and success in cocoa farming despite these challenges has instead begun to contest this inequality and inspire change in the sector.


Allman, Jean Marie., and Victoria B. Tashjian. I Will Not Eat Stone : A Women’s History of Colonial Asante. Social History of Africa. Portsmouth, NH : Oxford [England] : Cape Town: Heinemann ; J. Currey ; D. Philip, 2000.

Barrientos, Stephanie. “Gendered Global Production Networks: Analysis of Cocoa–Chocolate Sourcing.” Regional Studies 48, no. 5 (May 4, 2014): 791–803. https://doi.org/10.1080/00343404.2013.878799.

Keuklaar, K. Many more women may work in cocoa than official statistics suggest. In “‘A long way to go’ to equality for women cocoa farmers.” Mantukwa: Confectionary News, 2017, https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/11/02/Women-cocoa-farmers-A-long-way-to-go-to-equality.

Keuklaar, K. Women cocoa farmers lack equal land right access, but could significantly boost yields, improve child nutrition and help reserve global warming.In “‘A long way to go’ to equality for women cocoa farmers.” Mantukwa: Confectionary News, 2017, https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/11/02/Women-cocoa-farmers-A-long-way-to-go-to-equality.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Newark, UNITED KINGDOM: Polity Press, 2018. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/harvard-ebooks/detail.action?docID=5294996.

Quisumbing, Agnes R, Ellen M Payongayong, and Keijiro Otsuka. “Are Wealth Transfers Biased Against Girls? Gender Differences in Land Inheritance and Schooling Investment in Ghana’s Western Region,” n.d., 43.

Vigneri, Marcella, and Rebecca Holmes. 2009. “When being more productive still doesn’t pay: gender inequality and socio-economic constraints in Ghana’s cocoa sector.” Paper presented at the FAO-IFAD-ILO Workshop on Gaps, trends and current research in gender dimensions of agricultural and rural employment : differentiated pathways out of poverty, Rome, (31 March – 2 April 2009). Rome: FAO-IFAD-ILO. http://www.fao-ilo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/fao_ilo/pdf/Papers/20_March/Vigneri-Holmes-final.pdf.

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