When I was on my year of doctoral fieldwork, after eight months on the cocoa farms of Asia-Pacific and Ghana, I traveled to London to study the consumer end of the chocolate trade. Having done some work with Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana, which owns nearly half shares in Divine Chocolate in Britain, I arranged to meet with Sophi Tranchell, Divine's Managing Director.
We met in the conference room for our interview. Around the room, tacked up on the walls and resting on easels, were the most intriguing photographs of cocoa farmers I had ever seen. Quite unlike typical portrayals of farmers in Britain or the US, which show poor but hardworking men and women growing cocoa, the women gracing Divine's conference room walls were attractive fashionistas, wearing glamorous outfits and standing confidently in sassy poses. In their hands, they were holding pieces of chocolate.
My eyes locked on these images. Never before had I seen a cocoa farmer - much less a female cocoa farmer - depicted as a sophisticated cosmopolitan, enjoying a luxurious piece of chocolate. In Western media, it is the norm to portray African farmers as people in need of help, whose material poverty seems like their single enduring, defining feature. Not so with these images.
I asked Sophi where the posters had come from, and she explained that they were a part of an advertising campaign that had, at the time, just begun in British newspapers, including The Guardian, and women's magazines, such as Elle and OK! In Ghana, I had seen that West African women are highly regarded for their fashion sensibility, business acumen, and market prominence. I welcomed these ads, which showed that reality. Right away, I wanted to take the posters home, to explore and analyze this representation of African farmers as luxury consumers and fashionable business owners.
Sophi did send me back to my flat with a stack of the ads, and for many months afterwards I pored over them, crafting a chapter of my dissertation based on their intrigue. Then I defended, stowed my dissertation away, and did not look at the images, my favorite data from my fieldwork, for some time.
Just last week, my latest thoughts on these images were published in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, in an article entitled: "Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements." The abstract is below. It was a joy to see this work in print! I hope you will take a moment to check it out. The wonderful images -- and all that they represent about the women of Ghana's cocoa industry -- are thought-provoking indeed.
Journal of African Cultural Studies
This article concerns a beguiling set of advertisements for Divine Chocolate that feature women
cocoa farmers from Ghana, which recently appeared in British magazines and newspapers. In
contrast to representations of African women as exotic icons of ‘traditional’ cultures or leaders
of progressive development schemes, the Divine advertisements depict farmers as
cosmopolitan consumers of luxury goods and owners of the chocolate company. By
representing these Ghanaian women as glamorous business owners, the images invite
viewers to see them as potent actors in transnational exchanges of cocoa and chocolate, and
as beneficiaries of these exchanges, in contrast to analyses that focus on market exploitation
by the nation state or corporate actors. The images pose a challenge to narratives that cast
Africa as continually on the losing side of harmful binaries – primitive/civilized, traditional/
modern – and in an eternal developmental lag. Instead, they offer an alluring female figure
that envisions and promotes Africa’s roles in industrial production and luxury consumption.
Through a complex rendering of Ghanaian women farmers as attractive, socially mobile
beneficiaries of their own development efforts, the adverts invite connections among people
who grow, sell, and consume luxuries like chocolate, across a visual gulf that is often too
vast to bridge.