The Kristo Buase monastery, deep in the Brong Ahafo region, is the largest cashew plantation in central Ghana. The 48,000kg of cashew nuts it produces each year are sold to a major company, which then processes and exports them to the burgeoning European, US and Asian markets.
„Cashew has become one of the main cash crops in the region,“ says Brother Patrick Obeng-Nketiah, 69. „As a community, we need to have something to feed ourselves, to be independent, and cashew is a good business.“
Every January, the monastery’s handful of full-time staff is boosted by dozens of local casual workers, who come to pick the cashew windfalls, separating the nut from the fruit.
„Picking the cashew is a lot of work,“ says Obeng-Nketiah. „We hire young people from the local area to do the picking. We pay them per kilo picked – for every 10 kilos they collect, we give them the value of one kilo.“
The recruitment of children in cashew harvesting is widespread, industry insiders say, although they are quick to point out that the work is usually done after school, when many kids follow their parents to collect cashew windfalls off the ground during harvesting season.
„You do see children picking cashew,“ says Mary Adzanyo, director for private sector development of the African Cashew Initiative (ACI), a programme receiving funding from Bill and Melinda Gates and the German government to increase productivity in cashew growing and processing in Africa.
„But for me, if a child follows a mother to pick up the fruits from the ground, this is not a dangerous task. Cashew is harvested before the rains – it comes at a time when there is no other crop being harvested, and farmers are able to use the money from selling cashew to produce their other crops, like maize and sorghum. The profits are used to pay school fees. So it is a good source of income.“
There is growing scrutiny of the conditions in which cashew nuts are picked in Africa, the world’s largest grower of the crop. An estimated 2 million growers produce half the global supply. Among them is Yaw Gbogbolo, 56, who owns a 19-acre farm in a heavily forested valley near Nsawam. He says when the annual cashew harvest comes around, the only labourers he can find are children.
„During the harvest season, school children from the local village come to pick the nuts on the weekends,“ he adds. „The adults aren’t interested in doing it – the money is not attractive enough for them.“
Gbogbolo began growing cashew in 2004 under a government programme to promote production of the crop. He sells for about one Ghanaian cedi (30p) a kilo to a trader in Accra, who he believes passes it on to processing companies for approximately double the price. He is typical of the small cashew farmers in Ghana.
Cashews in Guinea-Bissau. Africa is the world’s largest grower of the crop. Photograph: Jasperwiet/Flickr“We don’t have large-scale producers of cashew, and trying to network the marketing of cashew nuts here is a problem,“ says Daniel Nartey, regional crop production officer for Ghana’s ministry of food and agriculture.
„The farmers who have the fields may be able to collect their small quantities of nuts, [but] they don’t know where to sell, because no commercial buyer is interested in going round getting very small amounts of cashew. There have been some attempts to create associations in this part of Ghana, but so far it has not worked – the groups were not very viable.“
Gbogbolo is yet to make a significant income from his cashews. The annual return for his entire crop – about 480 cedis – is less than the 700 cedis he pays the landlord each year to lease the land. But he hopes for better returns in the future.
„I planted these cashew trees in 2004, and they are still maturing,“ he says. „The yield should improve as they reach maturity. Now I live on my other cash crops, but I hope the cashew will keep me going as I get into old age. It’s an easy crop to look after and the work of harvesting it is not labourious.“
Cashew farmers are not alone in hoping the crop will yield increasing returns. The growing popularity of African nuts has been luring companies from Brazil, India and beyond. Usibras Ghana, the offshot of the major Brazilian supplier Usibras, is a case in point. The company buys about 40,000 tons of cashew nuts annually from west African countries including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. .
Like many companies that supply cashews to retailers in Europe and the US, Usibras used to buy raw nuts from west Africa and export them for processing. Now, however, the firm – in line with a growing trend – is building a $25m processing factory in Ghana, which will create up to 2,000 permanent jobs when it opens next year.
„In Brazil, my labour costs are higher,“ says Tarciso Falcao, the director of Usibras Ghana. „Ghana has the political and economic stability, and the infrastructure. I also see some potential to develop processed cashews for the local African markets.“
„Processing in Africa has tripled since 2006 … to 105,000 metric tons,“ says Xenia Défontaine of the African Cashew Alliance (ACA). „Ghana is processing 50% of all the nuts it produces, and if its four biggest processing companies were operating at full capacity, it could process 100%.“
West Africa, where 80% of the continent’s cashew nuts are grown, processes only 5-6% of its cashew output. Finance is a major obstacle, with interest rates for loans as high as 30%. This has led to the dominance of foreign processing firms such as Olam and Rajkumar.
To boost transparency, the ACA launched a seal programme last year – a stamp endorsing food safety and labour standards. So far, only a handful of companies have signed up. „We hope,“ says Falcao, „the seal will approve all the factories in Africa; this is just the beginning.“