The pruning method known as ‘TAPS’ was pioneered by a Peruvian family and has been taught by Technoserve to more than 20,000 farmers in the country. On average, the farmers have achieved 53% higher average yields after two years of applying the method.
The TAPS system was accompanied by efforts to boost market access by aggregating cocoa farmers’ produce into large lots, making it more attractive for buyers.
Technoserve hopes its findings can help boost yields for the world’s five million cocoa farmers, 90% of whom are smallholders with less than five hectares and many of whom live in poverty on less than $1.25 a day.
The non-profit organization hopes its method – published in a recent report - can inform cocoa programs globally, including those by major chocolate players such as Mars, Mondelēz and Nestlé,
‘Five times more than anyone else’
Victor Ganoza, Peru country director at Technoserve, told ConfectioneryNews: “We came up with the best practice from one of the farmers who was producing five times as much as anybody else.
"He was getting about 3,200-3,500 kilos per hectare of dry cocoa (3.2-3.5 MT). 650 kg was the average [for farmers in Peru in 2012]."
The Synchronized Fertilization and Pruning Technique (or ‘TAPS; its Spanish acronym) was created by Peruvian farmer Carols Sierra and his family, who starting growing cocoa after coca was eradicated from his community in 2002.
Technoserve worked closely with Sierra and his family for a year so their TAPS method could be expanded to farmers across San Martín, Huánuco, and Ucayali.
TAPS: Pruning and fertilizing three times a year
"He applied a technique that instead of pruning the plant once a year and fertilizing once a year, you prune the plant three times a year,” said Ganoza.
He said the second pruning under TAPS - which comes two to three months after the first - forms the tree and creates an opening at the top to allow light to stimulate flowering in the central trunk.
“The third pruning is just in between the rows [of trees] so there is be air circulation,” he continued."Each pruning is accompanied by a cycle of fertilization.”
Farmers who were taught the technique grew average yields from a baseline of 0.6 MT per hectare in 2011 to almost 1 MT by 2013.
Average annual income rose 85% from $1,889 to $3,510 for participating farmers in San Martin after implementing TAPS, bringing many farmers above the $3,200 national minimum wage, said Technoserve.
Three drivers of productivity
Ganoza said the project focused on three key drivers of productivity: Fertilization, pruning and disease control.
"We worked on those three and forgot about genetics because the plantations were already established... Forget about genetics, forget about the physiology…We don’t focus on teaching the farmers on the absorption of nutrients into the plant etc.,” he said.
Farm is not a 'curse'
Finance for the project came from micro-finance institutions at local banks, which helped farmers secure tools and fertilizer.
"One thing we've taught farmers is that their farms are an asset rather than a liability,” said Ganoza.
"Most farmers say to their child: 'If you don’t study you'll stay at the farm!' They think the farm is a curse, that it's not profitable. We've taught them that it's a business and they have to invest in it,” he said.
Ganoza said the Peruvian government could help expand the project by incentivising financial initiations to create low-interest credit facilities that are accessible to farmers.
Under the initiative, Technoserve also helped farmers aggregate small cocoa lots into large volumes to make it more attractive to buyers, helping them skip intermediary traders.
Peru is the world’s ninth largest cocoa producer, but represents just 1.6% of global production. However it is the second-largest producer of organic cocoa, and total cocoa production and exports have nearly doubled since 2008
These commercial blocks established by the program sold $10m of cocoa beans directly to exporters, and artisan chocolatiers sold more than $800,000 of chocolates.
Technoserve additionally helped strengthen cooperatives in Peru.
“The coops are weak, unfortunately, and don’t provide a lot of services,” said Ganoza. “By strengthening coops, by making them grow, they can provide these kind of services."
Tecnhoserve trained farmers in coops four times a year and met them twice in between training.
Role of certification
Technoserve’s program report said major chocolate companies increasingly care about where and how their cocoa is produced, leading firms such as Mars, Ferrero and Hershey to commit to 100% certified cocoa by 2020.
But Technoserve said: “The market pays only a small– though not insignificant – premium for certified cocoa, and there is an ongoing debate about how much smallholder farmers actually benefit from these programs.”
Ganoza said certification – through organizations such as Fairtrade, UTZ Certifed and Rainforest Alliance – strongly benefited cooperatives, but not always farmers themselves.
“Coops do get a premium and they can distribute it to their farmers. If the certification is owned by an exporter that doesn’t necessarily mean he's going to transfer those benefits to the farmer themselves.
“Suppose the farmer gets 20 cents more per kilo and he has a couple of hectares, in our case he will produces 2 MT per hectare. 10 cents or 15 cents is not that much, but for the coop it's quite a bit,” he said.