The Cocoa industry runs on trucks. Without trucks and the critical logistics they provide, there is no cocoa that makes it to the port. No chocolate, and no Christmas.
But nobody ever talks about the trucks, or the drivers that navigate the sometimes treacherous conditions to get our chocolate into the shops.
Let me share a story with you.
A 20 ton truck is ambling carefully down a dirt road at a steep angle. The road has one short stretch that is only just wide enough for the truck’s axles, with as little as 18 inches between the rear wheels and a steep drop. On the other side, the ground rises up, forming a wall, preventing the truck from moving a safe distance away from the edge.
The ‘road’ is nothing more than a dirt track, and heavy rains have made it deadly. The engine turns into a low rumble as the truck creeps slowly forward, as if it can perceive the danger.
But the rear wheel starts to slide. The driver stops, half opening his door in case he needs to jump from the cab (wearing a seatbelt will get you killed in this situation). He looks back at the rear wheels, and they’re holding. Very, very carefully he starts to reverse, but now the front wheels start to slide, and when he stops, the truck is literally not more than an inch away from the drop.
This is not in West Africa however, this is in the Baltics, and the truck is one of mine.
We had driven the short stretch, of about 15 meters, in our jeeps with our engineers, and we thought the truck could get across. But you never know how something so heavy will act in those conditions. In the end we decide to bring down two more heavy machines, a 50 ton excavator and a 42 ton wheel loader. We attach chains to the front and rear of the truck, and use the bucket of the excavator to dig in, like an anchor. With the truck actively pulled away from the edge, our head engineer gets in the cab, refusing to let the driver take the risk and in a moment that still gives me a knot in the stomach, the truck is dragged, inch by inch, to safety. The operation took an entire day, a dozen workers and drivers, and a lot of tons of machine. We were lucky to have all those resources, that others may not have.
This week Reuters reports that trucks are having difficulty getting to the remote locations to collect Cocoa and return the load to the port. It would not be uncommon to frame the predicament in the context of our own experiences perhaps. Times when we got our car stuck when we went on an adventurous picnic, or had to dig our way out of being snowed in. But it’s not like that.
Truthfully, I don’t know the circumstances truck drivers face in Cote d’Ivoire, although it’s bad enough that deliveries to the country’s port have dropped significantly in recent weeks. Drivers from Soubre might have to travel over 130km across bad roads to deliver their precious cargo of Cocoa to the port of San Pedro. Poor road conditions and older trucks don’t just have safety implications, but it also impacts the environment. When a truck changes down gears to cover rough ground, emissions increase further, and when you multiply that by thousands of trucks it becomes an issue, not least for the villages they drive through.
What I do know, is that driving an older truck that may not have good maintenance, and that is probably overloaded, in wet muddy conditions, is not inconvenient, It’s dangerous. A truck that slips and perhaps drops down a ditch would likely roll, and the driver will not have time to get out. Unlike when a car rolls, a truck cab cannot withstand the weight and it may get crushed with the driver inside.
In 2013, one of my drivers made a series of bad decisions in a panic, when he missed a gear on a steep incline. Instead of following procedure, he allowed the truck to start rolling back, and the brakes couldn’t hold the weight when the momentum got going. He jumped from the cab before the truck careened into a ditch and rolled. He broke an arm, but he could have died. Trucking in the wild offroad, is about as dangerous a job as you can get.
Better training would help, but it’s not unusual to be unable to find a single heavy equipment training company anywhere in the country. Drivers, “buy”, their license.
I can imagine the kind of challenges faced by truck drivers in Cote d’Ivoire, who will need to drive into the forest, load up their truck to probably an unsafe level, keeping a few dollars ready to bribe police who may stop them for being overweight, or not meeting other safety regulations like tyre wear.
Some of the bravest people I have met, are those who drive heavy machinery. I’ve tried it, and it terrified me. They may take risks that we consider dangerously reckless on a regular basis. It is not just a matter of the vehicles getting stuck, but the danger of them sliding into a dip or a trench and rolling over, losing the precious cargo, but more importantly, putting the driver at very real risk of death or serious injury.
Some farmers in the west of the country, have found it easier to transport their Cocoa across the border to Guinea, instead of trying to get it to the port in Cote d’Ivoire.
Other farmers in the east, are finding it more profitable to move their Cocoa across the border to Nigeria where it can fetch a higher price. There’s a cost of transport to take into account, but if the price differential is enough, and you’re near the border, then it can make an attractive alternative than selling in the domestic market, especially after the regulator, CCC, cut the farm-gate price paid for Cocoa by 18% this year.
Its right to talk about the livelihoods of the Cocoa farmers when we enjoy our chocolate, but perhaps we should spare a thought for the truck drivers too!