This story begins in Bioko, a beautiful island in Equatorial Guinea. In 1876, Tetteh Quarshie, a Ghanaian farmer, arrived here, discovered the existence of cocoa bean crops and decided to import them into his country. Today Ghana is the world’s second biggest cocoa bean producer. Exports amount to around 2 billion dollars a year, while chocolate imports are much lower, barely reaching 8 million. A new class of entrepreneurs have decided to bridge this gap; particularly because the demand for chocolate with a more cosmopolitan taste is growing in Ghana. Processing cocoa beans locally to produce chocolate and stimulate local consumption offer the opportunity to increase the industry’s revenues, and create new jobs. Chocolate factories have therefore sprung up that exclusively serve the domestic market. For several years now, Bioko has been the name of an Accra chocolate shop. It was founded by brave and enterprising 63-year-old Jeanne Donkoh. This is her story.
Four years ago you became a chocolate entrepreneur in Accra, but what did you do in your previous life?
I lived in the US. I worked as a legal assistant. Twenty years ago, my husband decided to return to Ghana. I followed him but our children still live in the US. Back in my country, I looked for a new job. The legal system in Ghana is completely different from the American one; so I struggled to fit into my sector. The opportunity to change my occupation came when I got a job in a hotel in Accra, where a public relations position had opened up. I took some courses in hotel management and specialized in the marketing with a master's degree. My enthusiasm for the job died down after 15 years, and the desire for a change returned. I was 58 and first I decided to take a sabbatical.
And what happened?
One afternoon, I was watching television when they showed a woman in Madagascar explaining how chocolate is made.
Was it love at first sight?
Exactly that. I had no idea how big the chocolate industry was. I was unaware of how important cocoa beans have always been to Ghana's exports. It took me a moment to understand the opportunity that could open up from processing our own cocoa beans to produce chocolate to be sold on the domestic market. In fact, until a few years ago, (most of the chocolates you could buy in Accra, were imported).
What has changed?
However, the government had recently begun to encourage value addition to the cocoa beans. Particularly because market demand was about to explode dramatically, I went to the UK to study. I took a couple of courses to learn how to make chocolate.
How do you set up a chocolate factory from scratch?
When I got back from London, I opened my first workshop: in my home. My first investment was a marble table. My aunt had a cocoa bean farm, which made my life easier.
It’s quite complicated to get hold of cocoa beans in Ghana because the farmers are managed by a central apparatus. I started producing dark and white chocolate. Initially word of mouth worked, friends and acquaintances came to my home to buy small gift boxes. I gradually built up my courage because I received a lot of positive comments.
Did you do everything yourself?
Soon Abena, a very good cook trained at the National Vocational Training Institute (NVTI), started working with me. Abena, a mother of one, and I made chocolate in my kitchen. When I founded Bioko in 2016, she was my first employee. Then Frank and David joined.
How did you train your team in a new industry?
I wanted to hire creative, hardworking people who above all wanted to learn. I was lucky. There are many cooking schools in Ghana but very few chefs who know how to make chocolate. The Cocoa Processing Company is one of the few government companies that organizes training courses.
Ghana exports cocoa beans, but Ghanaians are not used to the taste of chocolate. What do you do to educate new consumers?
We organize tasting courses, go to schools and teach children the importance of cocoa beans for the Ghanaian economy. We organize intensive courses, especially in summer. We teach the health benefits of cocoa, whose nutritional values are almost entirely unknown. There is strong interest among the public, particularly because the government encourages people to eat chocolates made with our cocoa beans.
What kind of products do you create?
In our laboratory we make pralines, bars, and cookies. Dark, milk, white chocolate, with no added sugar. We teach our customers that the higher the % of chocolate, the less sugar has been added. We have fun with inclusions and use mostly local ingredients: like cashews. In our two stores, in the center of Accra, we sell packs of 12, 24 or 18, mainly as wedding gifts, which we can customize. Ada Sea Salt, for example, is made with 70% dark chocolate (cocoa beans, sugar, non-GMO soy lecithin, fresh vanilla) and natural fragrances. Gari & Peanut Butter is made using milk chocolate, with 50% cocoa, gari (cassava couscous) and peanut butter.
Is everyone crazy about Bioko?
We have a wide range of customers, especially young adults in their twenties or thirties. Lots of locals, several expats.
I can't help but ask you this question: what does it mean to have access to energy for your business?
Having a stable electricity supply is critical to our business. Chocolate must be kept in a temperate environment and the humid climate of Ghana, especially at certain times of the year, does not help. Unfortunately, until recently, the electricity supply was erratic and blackouts were very frequent. When I set up Bioko, I had to buy a big power generator, an expense that was outside my budget, so I was forced to postpone the purchase of a chocolate machine I needed. Today the power supply is more stable and less expensive, but the bill is still higher than in other countries. The result is that my products don't come cheap.
You used to live in the US and have come back to Ghana. What do you think the future holds for your country?
Ghana has a great future mainly thanks to its political stability. It is a country of young and dynamic people, with high standards and open to the world; everyone wants to improve their quality of life. I feel we have the right conditions for continued economic growth. I hope the impact of the pandemic will be temporary, and that the economy will continue to expand, perhaps at a faster rate, and that more and more jobs will be created.
And for your future, what would you like?
I am currently trying to convince my children to return to Ghana, I would like them to take over the reins of my business one day. The artisan chocolate industry is booming all over the world. You need to keep your eyes peeled for future opportunities. We are thinking of expanding artisan chocolate production to cocoa butter processing. The government is investing in the added value of cocoa, not only for export and trade, but also to allow chocolate producers to buy the raw material directly from farmers, decentralizing the distribution that is currently managed by a central body, the Ghana Cocoa Board.