More than 66% of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa. With demand increasing and production falling behind, technology is finding its way to the farms.
The Harmattan is a dry wind that blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa towards the Gulf of Guinea. From late November to mid-March, rainfalls in the region become scarce and levels of humidity drop.
This year, the season has been particularly harsh, resulting in severe drought, hindering the growth of cocoa pods. Farmers who rely on cocoa for their income are at risk.
Cocoa production in Ghana – the second largest cocoa producer – is expected to drop about 30% compared to last year.
The Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) is trying to implement an irrigation system powered with solar energy. Its goal is to allow year-round production and improve resilience to the Harmattan season and drought by disseminating water and fertilizer throughout the farms. The COCOBOD started to test the irrigation systems in 2019. The benefits were seen in the first year.
With good agronomic practices, an irrigated farm could produce up to four times the yield of a land without irrigation. Cocoa farmers could grow fewer cocoa trees in favor of other crops and reduce their dependence on cocoa.
Cocoa trees are vulnerable to diseases. The Cocoa Swollen Shoot Viral Disease for example is a disease specific to West Africa. There is no cure and early detection methods just started being introduced. For now, farmers manage the virus by chopping down, burning and replacing trees that show symptoms. Yet that often has little effect in containing the disease, which is spread by tiny white insects called mealybugs.
Lamentably, cocoa farmers barely make enough to sustain their lifestyle. Although the COCOBOD set up flexible payment schedules, smallholders are reluctant to install the technology on their farms. If the system doesn’t deliver the results expected, the investment would become an expensive debt.
This past month, the COCOBOD solicited the financial help of stakeholders in the cocoa industry, particularly financial institutions and international non-governmental organisations, for support to upscale cocoa irrigation farming.
The implementation of this technology is a part of the COCOBOD’s Productivity Enhancement Programmes (PEPs) launched in 2019. The intention of the PEPs is to increase the country’s cocoa production levels.
“The PEPs will mainly entail measures to sustainably increase plant fertility; develop irrigation systems; rehabilitate aged and disease-infected farms; increase warehouse capacity; and create an integrated farmer database. The programmes will also provide short-term working capital support to local cocoa-processing companies, thus facilitating domestic value addition and consumption of cocoa products in Ghana.” – Ghana Cocoa Board, Project summary.
These programmes show that Ghana has the intention to answer to the growing demand for cocoa while building farmer’s resilience to external factors. It is a promising project that already shows progress.