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African Cocoa Initiative Augurs Boom for Growers 

By Divine Ntaryike Jr

In recent years, cocoa growers in Cameroon, the world’s fifth largest producer of the main chocolate ingredient have been grinning steadily from their farms to the markets, banks and back home.  Prices have been progressively encouraging, prodding increased production despite sporadic disease and climate change punctuations.

According to experts, the farmers will be expressing even wider smiles in a few years.  Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast have been selected to partake in a five-year US$ 13, 5 million venture that will seek to boost production and incomes for growers.

The program, announced last October and spearheaded by the African Cocoa Initiative, ACI, is due launch in the chosen countries in the coming weeks.  It aims at developing the cocoa sector in four critical areas including promoting public-private cooperative investments, improving the genetic quality and productivity of the crop, expanding farmer education as well as enhancing the input supply chain for farmers.

The initiative is a brainchild of the US-based World Cocoa Foundation [WCF] which supports a viable cocoa economy.  It provides farmers with the necessary instruments to grow more and better quality cocoa, market it successfully and reap greater profits.  The Foundation is partnering with the US Agency for International Development, USAID and the Sustainable Trade Initiative, IDH to deliver funding and expertise.

“It will support regional research led by the African Cocoa Breeders Working Group (ACBWG).  This effort will be coordinated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Specifically, the effort will develop, pilot and test new production approaches for producing and distributing “certified/improved” planting materials in collaboration with farmers and communities,” Marisa Yoneyama, WCF Communications Manager explained in an email-conducted interview.

Cocoa has over the years remained one of West Africa’s most important crops.  90 percent of it is cultivated on some 2 million small family farms and the region accounts for nearly 70 percent of global cocoa supply. Increasingly however, experts warn that over-concentration on the crop as a result of steadily attractive world market prices could swell risks of food insecurity in the region.

“The idea is to make sure that even though the focus is on cocoa, the farmers should diversify their resource base to be able to feed themselves because we have a problem of food security.  So, it would be cocoa on the one side and may be another plantation where you are growing cassava, beans, or maize, because the farmers don’t eat cocoa,” Michael Ndoping, the General Manager of Cameroon’s National Cocoa and Coffee Board explained.

At the WCF, experts are preaching the environmental benefits of the initiative.  “Modern cocoa cultivation depends now on a more educated farmer that has adopted good agriculture practices.  These include the safe handling and proper application of chemicals and fertilizers, the protection of the cocoa crop by planting shade trees and other crops like plantains and fruit trees.  When well established and maintained, cocoa can be a very positive contribution to a healthy environment,” Yoneyama added.

The ACI follows other ventures led by the WCF including the Sustainable Tree Crop Program or SCTP and the Cocoa Livelihoods Program.  Private sector funding for the ACI will come from big industry players who are all members of the WCF and critics have been quick to note that it is a tacit way of ensuring supplies amid farmer agitation for increased world market prices. 

“When you complain the price is not good, they tell you diversify.  And the excuse is fighting hunger, food insecurity and poverty.  You see the logic?  They’re saying the price wouldn’t go up which is what the farmers want.  In other words, if you’re growing plantains, yams, cassava alongside; those crops are subsidizing cocoa.  It is simple arithmetic,” James Ndome, a farmer on the outskirts of Cameroon’s economic nub Douala, observed.

Nonetheless, Michael Ndoping says Cameroon has endorsed the initiative and is waiting to begin its implementation.  The country’s production hit an all-time high of 240,000 tons in the 2010/11 season, and up from 210,000 tons previously.  The Cocoa Development Authority says production should jump to another record 250,000 tons this season due to improved practices, the cultivation of improved high-yielding varieties, increasing government assistance in building drying ovens, favorable climate and of course the African Cocoa Initiative.

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