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High tech revolution: Ecuador’s cocoa sector prepares to mechanize

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Ecuador's large mechanized cocoa plantations at over 2MT per hectare and plan to share their secrets with smallholder farmers. Photo: iStock/idcde
Ecuador's large mechanized cocoa plantations at over 2MT per hectare and plan to share their secrets with smallholder farmers. Photo: iStock/idcde

Related tags Fine flavor cocoa Ecuador Farm International cocoa organization

Ecuador’s cocoa industry is vying to increase its efficiency by exploiting technology, but says farm sizes must increase to allow mechanization.

Next month, the country will host the IV World Cocoa Summit, where owners of  large plantations will teach smallholder farmers and those with farms of less than 50 hectares how to mechanize and adopt good agricultural practices.

Major firms such as Mars, Barry Callebaut, Ritter Sport and Nestlé are expected to be present at the event from August 29 to 31 in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Ecuador's Cocoa Sector

cocoa plnatation aprocafa

Ecuador is Latin America’s largest cocoa producer and the leading producer of fine flavor cocoa, but accounts for just 5% of the global supply. The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) forecasts the nation will produce 250,000 MT of cocoa in 2015/16, up almost 9% compared to the prior cocoa year. For more statistics on Ecuador’s cocoa sector see this USDA report​.

Boosting yields for smallholders

Robert Mollison, vice president of Ecuadorian fine flavor cocoa association APROCAFA, the event organizer, told ConfectioneryNews: “Ecuador is turning to new technologies, but also for little farmers.”

Mollison is general manager of the La Chola plantation in Guayaquil, which in April was acquired by​ global chocolate market leader Mars.

La Chola is one of APROCAFA's 35 members that have cocoa farms of 100 hectares or more.

“In all these farms we have over two metric tons (MT) per hectare of average production,” ​said Mollison.

This exceeds global average yields (0.5 MT) and contrasts with the majority of farms in Ecuador.

Yields below African levels

IV World Cocoa Summit

aprocafa general

The IV World Cocoa Summit is intended to teach smallholders how to improve pruning, drainage and fertilization. It will also explore how those with at least 50 hectares can benefit from mechanization. The Ecuadorian government, non-profit organizations and private companies are funding smallholders to attend the summit, including some from other nations such as Peru, Colombia and Mexico. Around 400 delegates are expected to attend the summit, half of which will be smallholder farmers.

Average yield per hectare across Ecuador in 2012 amounted to 0.51 MT – albeit significantly higher than levels in 2000 (0.24MT), found a report by Hardman Agribusiness.

According to Mollison, traditional farms in Ecuador today average 0.25 MT per hectare.

“It’s even under Africa,”​ he said. Average cocoa yields in Africa are estimated at around 0.4 MT per hectare, said the APROCAFA VP.

Mollison added that Ecuadorian yield was so low on traditional farms because many trees date back to the 1920s when the nation’s crop was devastated by Witches’ Broom disease.

Consequently, many trees have died and have been replaced with other crops. Those that remain are old and improperly managed, said Mollison,

 “To mechanize a plantation, you need to plant now,”​ continued the Mars employee. “So if smallholder farmers have not designed the plantation well to allow a tractor inside they can’t do it.”

‘You can only mechanize if you have large farms’

Mollison went on: “Mechanization helps to do hand labors faster and more precise.”

Injecting Value

The ICCO recently made a recommendation​ for larger cocoa estates in traditionally smallholder zones to “inject innovation in the cocoa value chain​”. The ICCO estimates 95% of the world’s cocoa​ ​comes from five million smallholder cocoa farmers, while the professional sector makes up just 5% of global supply.

He said a backpack sprayer to apply fertilizer would allow a farmer to cover around a hectare a day, but if he or she uses a tractor they can cover 10 hectares a day.

Mollison, who will deliver a presentation on mechanization at IV World Cocoa Summit, said a tractor would cost around $5 a day, but he added: “You can only mechanize if you have large farms.”

Smallholder farmers – with one to five hectare farms - account for around 90% of Ecuador’s cocoa bean production, according to a report​ from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year.

Roberto Mollison is vice president of Ecuadorian fine flavor cocoa association APROCAFA and general manager of Mars La Chola. Photo: APROCAFA

But Mollison took heart from other industries where farm sizes have rapidly grown. For example, the acreage for US cropland almost doubled​ between 1982 and 2007, from 589 acres to 1,105, according to the USDA.

The ICCO also said that - contrary to Côte d’Ivoire, where the average cocoa farm size is 5.05 hectares - there are many medium sized plantations (11-50 ha) in Ecuador and some large plantations.

The Ecuadorian government is also currently establishing three large clusters of cocoa farmers​ to help industrialize the sector. This includes a 2,000 hectare co-plantation in Añangu, inside the Yasuni National Park, giving chocolate industry a single point of contact for the farmers working in the area.

Mollison also estimates 10% of the area in Ecuador in newly planted, paving the way for mechanization.

Chocolate makers and large plantations

  • ritter plantation11
    Ritter plantation in Nicaragua. Source: Ritter
    Mars acquired Hacienda La Chola​ a 485-hectare cocoa farm in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in April this year, adding to its existing research farms in Brazil and Indonesia. Mars intends to use the largest cocoa farm it owns to scale up its plant science research.
  • Ritter Sport is currently cultivating a 2,500 hectare​ cocoa plantation in Nicaragua that will eventually cover 30% of its cocoa needs.
  • Executive director of the world’s largest fine flavor cocoa plantation Hacienda Victoria told this site​ last year Nestlé, Lindt, Mars, Ritter Sport, Petra Foods and Valrhona had all visited the 500-hectare plantation near Guayaquil in Ecuador and said Barry Callebaut had even expressed interest to buy its entire output.

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