Yaounde — Cameroon's position as one of Africa's leading cocoa producers is under threat following a sharp drop in the country's production due to harsh weather conditions.
The key cocoa-producing regions of the Southwest and South of the country have suffered prolonged dry seasons for the past two years, a problem experts believe may be linked to climate change. The droughts have caused poor harvests of both food and cash crops, especially cocoa.
According to statistics from the National Cocoa and Coffee Board (NCCB), cocoa production in Cameroon for 2011-12 stood at 208,000 tonnes, down from 220,000 tonnes the previous year. The drop affects an important source of income both for farmers and for the government through export earnings.
"It is disturbing that not only the quantity of our cocoa production has dropped, but the quality is not also good enough, and such poor-quality cocoa is sold in the international market at giveaway prices," said Michael Ndoping, director-general of the NCCB, at the close of an international cocoa research conference in Yaounde last November.
"Our main objective now is not only to increase quantity but also produce high-quality cocoa that can sell at a premium," Ndoping said.
On a recent visit to cocoa farmers in the South region, Cameroon's minister of commerce, Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, acknowledged the drop in cocoa export earnings, and attributed the decline in production partly to the prolonged dry season, which he said had aggravated the vulnerability of cocoa plants and pods to pests and diseases.
NEW RESISTANT VARIETY
In response, the government, in collaboration with Cameroon's Institute for Research and Agricultural Development (IRAD) and SODECAO, an organization charged with cocoa development and cultivation, is introducing a modified species of cocoa that is resistant to diseases triggered by changing climatic conditions.
A project to intensify control of fungi and other pests in the cocoa and coffee sector has also been started by the ministry of agriculture.
The commerce minister warned that some 2,000 tonnes of Cameroonian cocoa worth about 4 billion Central African CFA francs (about $8.3 million) were currently at risk of being rejected by European markets because of their low quality.
According to Atangana, the situation has been exacerbated by the poor practices of farmers especially in the South region, who dry their produce on tarred surfaces that damage the quality of the beans.
"Apart from helping farmers improve on the quality of cocoa, we have come up with a modified species of cocoa that scientists say is resistant to adverse climatic changes. These new species will soon be distributed to farmers," the minister announced.
"These new species are particularly better resistant to black pod and capsids diseases, the main scourge of cocoa in Cameroon," said Celestin Nkou of IRAD.
Black pod is a disease that attacks the ripening cocoa pod, while capsids are insects that damage mature cocoa stems, causing trees to die.
"These insects are usually most active and destructive when there is a prolonged dry season leading to severe moisture deficit," Nkou explained.
LOSS OF EXPORT REVENUE
More than half of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa, with Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon taking the lead. Statistics from Cameroon's ministry of agriculture show that cocoa accounts for almost half the country's primary-sector exports, contributing about 250 billion CFA francs annually (nearly $520 million) to national revenues.
In 2010-11 there were over 750,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) of cocoa planted. Along with coffee, the crop provides a livelihood for over 800,000 farmers.
Although global production of cocoa in 2011 stood at 4 billion tonnes, the NCCB says that supply remains grossly insufficient relative to demand.
"The demand for cocoa is even getting higher with the entry of China and India in (the) chocolate producing market," said Ndoping, the NCCB head. "Unfortunately the supply is stagnating in some countries like Nigeria and Ghana, and dropping in others, like the case of Cameroon."
The NCCB reports that almost all cocoa-producing countries in the region are suffering capsid defoliation, leaving many farmers with drastically reduced incomes.
The IRAD's Nkou said that the new varieties of cocoa plant are not just pest-resistant but also more productive, yielding 700-1,000 kg per hectare (3,800-5,400 lbs per acre) after 18 months, compared to about 370 kg/ha (2,000 lbs/acre) after five to six years for current varieties.
Experts in the cocoa industry say better training for farmers is also key.
"Since cocoa is a disease-prone crop, sensitive to temperature and moisture variation, and also because the fermenting and drying methods practised are critical to taste and quality, the farmers need to be trained regularly to acquire skills on best practices," said Ndoping, the head of the cocoa board.
CREDIT A PROBLEM, FARMERS SAY
But Alphonse Ndongo, a 48-year-old cocoa farmer in Ebolowa, in Cameroon's South region, said that farmers' motivation to invest further in cocoa is waning because of the heavy labour involved and the low returns.
"We don't have access to formal credit from banks, and consequently most farmers lack the means to adopt recommended practices to mitigate the effects of climate change on cocoa production," Ndongo said.
"Because of the cocoa diseases my production dropped from 12 tonnes in 2011 to 10 tonnes in 2012, making it difficult for me to meet the school needs of my children," he added, calling for the creation of a farmers' bank to facilitate access to credit.
Ndongo said that when rains come, they are so heavy as to make drying cocoa beans difficult. He also criticized the government for not improving the farm to market roads, making it very difficult to transport produce in the rainy season when the roads become muddy.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.