Securing chocolate, securing livelihoods

We have a special guest blog post by Ermias Betemariam, Land Health Scientist from the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF), who recently returned from Cote d’Ivoire.

I recently returned from a work trip to Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer. Part of my time there was spent visiting with smallholder cocoa farmers involved in the Vision for Change: Sustainable Cocoa Communities project.

The project—a long-term collaboration between the global confectionery manufacturer Mars Chocolate, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), national institutions, universities, industry peers and other partners—is bringing to bear the power of technology transfer and research to increase cocoa yields in a sustainable way. The project will benefit hundreds of thousands of smallholder cocoa farmers, and in so doing, secure the production of cocoa, the lifeblood of the chocolate industry.

Soubré, located to the south-west of the country, is currently the Vision for Change main partnership site in Côte d’Ivoire. With 13 Cocoa Development Centers (CDC), the site is working with 10,000 smallholder farmers. This number is set to grow to 150,000 by 2020.

As I visited cocoa farms, I saw first hand the many challenges farmers face. These constraints have meant that even as they produce “the food of the gods,” Ivorian smallholder cocoa farmers have remained in poverty, making barely enough to meet their families’ basic needs, let alone afford luxuries like chocolate.

Top among these problems are ageing, underproductive cocoa trees; soil infertility; post-harvest losses; and pests and diseases, all of which interact with local and global socio-political realities in a complex way.

Rehabilitating cocoa farms so they are healthier and more productive is a major thrust of the Vision for Change project. The work involves refreshing under-producing cocoa trees by grafting them with improved scions of high-yielding, disease- and pest-resistant cultivars. On 20November 2012, ICRAF joined other partners in the opening of the somatic embryogenesis lab at the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique (CNRA) headquarters in Adiopodoume, Cote d’Ivoire, where much of the cocoa improvement research will be conducted.

Among cocoa pests, the pod borer Conopomorpha cramerella, which has been found to reduce cocoa yield by around 40% in Indonesia is of particular concern [See the publication Cocoa Futures, linked below]. And cocoa swollen shoot virus, which causes severe yield losses and even death of infected trees, is being tackled through on-farm sanitation and breeding.

Critical soil research and training will be conducted using the land health surveillance system developed by ICRAF. To that end, the project has strengthened appropriate capacities and partnerships with Centre National de Recherche Agronomique (CNRA) as well as the soil department of the Yamoussoukro National Polytechnic Institute.

Cocoa farms are perfect candidates for agroforestry, as cocoa thrives in light shade. Historically cocoa growing has led to considerable deforestation, and integrating trees on farms can provide much-needed tree products to farmers. Through domestication of high value trees, these agroforestry systems can bring significant income to farmers, as ICRAF has learned from a similar experience in Cameroon. Furthermore, certification standards for cocoa today include the intercropping of indigenous trees with cocoa.

The project team is therefore working to transfer agroforestry knowledge. Nursery operators trained by the project will grow and sell seedlings of valuable and suitable tree species (e.g. Irvingia gabonensis; Ricinodendron heudelotii; Milicia excels; Nesogordonia papaverifera) alongside improved cocoa seedlings. Beyond higher cocoa yields, trees on farms provide farmers with animal fodder, shade and fruits. They also provide many important ecosystem services such as watershed management, carbon sequestration and clean air production.

Thanks to the project, we will be able to measure the optimum tree density for cocoa agroforestry, the effects of different agroforestry tree species on cocoa yield, and the best sylviculture treatments for cocoa farms (e.g. using tree prunings on farms). We will also understand how soil quality affects cocoa’s pest and disease susceptibility and yield. From this research will emerge sound recommendations on soil management practices that sustainably increase productivity.

At the landscape level, project partners are studying what happens to the ecosystem when natural forests are converted to cocoa. Some of the questions being addressed include: What is the biodiversity of soil-borne and above-ground biota? What is the pest profile? How much carbon is the ecosystem storing? What is the biodiversity and water quality of rivers like around agroforestry systems?

In recent times, some cocoa farms have been converted to rubber and we will also be looking at the impact of this on the environment’s health.

There are many socio-economic challenges as well which are being addressed by the project.  To obtain higher cocoa yields and income, farmers need more than more productive trees; they need better access to fertilizers and other inputs.  Options for diversifying and increasing incomes for cocoa farmers also need to be developed to promote sustainability and long-term economic viability of cocoa farming.  This economic development also needs to happen in a way that does not generate social costs such as using child labor in ways that can be harmful to children and which may deny them education.  The project is therefore working with communities to help them manage the social developmental challenges that can be expected from increased economic performance.

Support to cocoa producers, strategic research, supportive national policies and fair markets will see the world’s 4.5 million smallholder cocoa farmers earn just rewards from their farms and meet the projected demand for an extra one million tons of cocoa by 2020.

Sustainable and economically rewarding cocoa farming also means that as farmers uplift their livelihoods from cocoa, they will assure the long-term supply of chocolate—the world’s most delightful and affordable of edible luxuries.

This blog was written with the inputs of Dr. Frank Place, Dr. Christophe Kouame, Dr. Keith Shepherd, and Daisy Ouya

Further information:

Related Links

Cocoa webpage

On-farm productivity research at the World Agroforestry Centre

The Vision for Change project, is a Mars Sustainable Cocoa Initiative implemented by ICRAF in Côte d’Ivoire. For more information contact Christophe Kouame

Cocoa Futures: An innovative programme of research and training is transforming the lives of cocoa growers in Indonesia and beyond. No. 09, Trees for Change’ publications series.

The World Cocoa Conference 2012


Minimizing the risk of spreading Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease




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  1. Moctar Sangare
    | November 27, 2012, 8:59 am

    Thanks Ermias –

    Meeting with you in Soubré and listening to your presentation at the ICRAF office in Abidjan, later in the week, wouldn’t made me conclude that you had understood so well the objectives of this program that Mars is putting in place in Cote d’Ivoire.

    Appreciate your input and invite you to remain critical for the success of this joint effort to help cocoa farming evolve in W.Africa

  2. Moctar Sangare
    | November 27, 2012, 9:02 am

    Thanks Ermias –

    Meeting with you in Soubré and listening to your presentation at the ICRAF office in Abidjan, later in the week, showed that you were eager to assess all parameters of the program but I am so impressed by your level of understanding of the objectives of this program that Mars is putting in place in Cote d’Ivoire.

    Appreciate your input and invite you to remain critical for the success of this joint effort to help cocoa farming evolve in W.Africa

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