Cocoa is a very important cash crop in Ghana and is one of the main contributors to the country's foreign exchange earnings. But like other crops, it is also plagued by various diseases and pests.
The Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) is called Tafo Cocoa Station when it was established in 1938 and later changed its name to the West African Cocoa Research Institute (WACRI) in 1944. It has mandate of conducting research to facilitate improved production of disease-free or disease-resistant cocoa, not only in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) but also in other West African countries which were under British rule, including Nigeria.
However, various countries later established their own research institutions after they gained independence and Ghana renamed WACRI as the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG).
The Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN) was established in Ibadan, Oyo State, on December 1, 1964, as a successor autonomous research organisation to the Nigerian substation of the defunct West African Cocoa Research Institute (WACRI).
According to the Executive Director of Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG), Dr Franklin Amoah, the institute was established in 1938 after a farmer observed some unusual symptoms on his cocoa tree as a result of diseases, particularly the swollen shoot disease in 1936.
The institute was established to look into the case and other diseases and pests problems that came up. It later became a centre for research for post-graduate students from different countries.
Amoah said when it comes to research on Cocoa, Ghana and Nigeria have many things in common, adding: "The Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria was formerly a substation of our institute until after independence when they decided to be autonomous.
"But since then we have had a lot of collaboration and share a lot of things, including research findings. Virtually every year I travel to Ukraine where I collaborate with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria," he told media fellows of the Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) when they visited the institute in Tafo, Ghana in April.
He said the diseases and pests of cocoa are major problems but the research institute has been doing its best to keep the disease and pests under control, adding that the two major diseases that affect cocoa are the swollen shoot disease and black pod disease.
"As at now, we are managing the swollen shoot disease, we have not found any major cure for it. It is a viral disease. As I speak over two million cocoa trees have been removed, eradicated, cut out and replanted while the breeders are also trying to develop materials which are very resistant or tolerant to the disease.
"We are also putting other agronomic practices to ensure that the spread of the disease is minimised. We have what we call the barrier cropping where core plot of cocoa is surrounded by two or three lines of non host plants."
He said the swollen shoot is a major cocoa disease in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire and Togo, adding that the symptoms vary with environmental conditions. The symptoms include the swelling of the root or stem, leaf discolouration and death of the trees, thus, affecting crop yields.
The executive director said the institute collaborated with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, Ibadan, and cloned some cocoa materials which have promising signs of resistance to the swollen shoot disease.
Amoah said breeders are also working hard to come up with materials that are tolerant to black pod disease, saying the disease can destroy a farm within a short time.
He said eradication of the disease can be done by farm sanitation coupled with applying chemicals on the farm, adding that the institute tries to avoid using of chemicals, considering the farmers health and the crops. In addition, it also avoids use of pesticides except those recommended for controlling pests.
He added that the institute has been the farmer's friend and major pillar in planting cocoa as they are benefitting from the institute's research, especially through the farmers' newspaper it publishes regularly to enlighten them.
Explaining the functions of various sections of the research institute, the Public Relations Officer, Lloyd Adasi Brobbey said: "There is an agronomy division which helps farmers establish and maintain their farms and guides them on how to plant, among others. There is the plant pathology division which looks at the diseases of cocoa. There is also the entomology division which looks at pest -insect control.
"Then there is the physiology biochemistry division which looks at plant intake of water, nutrient and fermentation of cocoa. As we know the first cocoa has no chocolate quality. It is after fermentation and drying that you get chocolate. Then we have the plant breeding division which looks at the varieties of cocoa that we have in Ghana."
He said the Amelonado, is the first type of cocoa brought into Ghana and has good seed, however, it has a long gestation period of eight years, (that is from when you plant to when you harvest). He said the researchers in 1944 now replaced it with the type called Amazon, which begins bearing fruit at about four years.
He said another variety called the Trinitario was brought from Trinidad and Tobago and takes about five years to mature. However, it is susceptible to the black pod disease.
He said the scientists carried out research and came up with the variety called the hybrid cocoa which is the combination of the Amelonado and Amazon and is the variety presently supplied to the farmers.
Brobbey said the hybrids take a very short time to mature with some maturing as early as 18 months and it has the best disease resistance.
He said there are other types or varieties of cocoa which are of no economic importance to Ghana, adding that there are also two sub-divisions which used to meet with farmers and help organise radio talk shows for them.
Aside cocoa, the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) now also carries out research on coffee, cashew and shea butter. It has a shop where products made from these crops and cocoa like biscuits, wine, beverage vinegar, soaps jam and creams, among others, are made and sold.