Scientists weigh in

Modern times: What’s holding back tech advances in cocoa?

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Why are adoption rates for sustainability training so low? Scientists weigh in. ©GettyImages/RomoloTavani
Why are adoption rates for sustainability training so low? Scientists weigh in. ©GettyImages/RomoloTavani

Related tags Cocoa Futures contract Farm Papua new guinea

Chocolate companies should rethink cocoa sustainability programs to reverse low adoption rates for training and technology, says The Scientific Committee of the International Symposium on Cocoa Research.

Cocoa unlike many other major agri-commodities is grown almost exclusively by smallholder farmers, often living in extreme poverty, on small plots of land, predominantly in West Africa.

Industry and government backed initiatives aiming to create a sustainable cocoa sector regularly train farmers on how they may increase yields and potentially income by for example using fertilizer,  rehabilitating trees or using pruning tools.

However, adoption rates can be low. Very low.

Of the 147,000 farmers reached by industry-led initiative CocoaAction – a platform on sustainability for the nine leading companies in cocoa and chocolate – only 3,100 of farmers embraced the full productivity package prescribed by training, an adoption rate of 2%

Why do so many farmers overlook best practices?

Three speakers at the International Symposium on Cocoa Research, taking place this week in Lima, Peru, say lack of price incentives, labor shortages, and the commodity market may be responsible.

In a nutshell: Recommendations

  • Pay more to create an incentive & move away from the futures market
  • Invest in local infrastructure; encouraging youth to stay in cocoa communities
  • Invest in community health
  • Share data with farmers (particularly on complementary crops)
  • Financially support young farmers

Professor David Guest: Price Incentive

David Guest, professor of plant pathology at the University of Sydney, said farmers are reluctant to adopt technology and training partly due to uncertainty and volatility in cocoa market prices.

“Consider for example a farmer who decides, based on the market price of $3,000 per ton in August 2016 to invest in fertilisers, pruning and sanitation to increase yields.

“Six months later the market price has dropped by 42% and the farmer’s investment has essentially been lost, even though she or he followed best practice taught by any one of the farmer training schemes available,”​ he said.

The researcher suggests companies should deccomoditize by moving away from the futures market and paying more to reward innovative farmers.

This would protect farmers from market crashes and inspire higher adoption rates, he argued.

Farmers in remote areas could be given a greater say in training offered, potentially via mobile technologies linking rural villages to the market, the professor added.

‘Guts are needed’ on pricing

Verina Ingram of Wageningen University & Research said “guts are needed”​ for chocolate companies to debate living incomes and prices paid to farmers with origin governments and traders.

“This means touching on the highly sensitive and political aspects of decommoditization and/or price setting in the cocoa value chain and futures market - both for the regulated price countries e.g. Côte d’Ivoire and & Ghana, and free markets,” ​she said.

Ingram added further processing at origin of not only liquor, butter and powder, but also chocolate, could increase exports in cocoa producing nations and allow a better price for farmers, creating greater incentive to embrace training and technology.

David Guest, professor of plant pathology at the University of Sydney.

Community health

Poor health is another major barrier to adoption, said Guest.

The average age of a cocoa farmer is 50, according to Fairtrade, while life expectancy in the principal growing nation Côte d'Ivoire is 53.

This aging farming populace - typically managing one to three hectares - often live in remote regions and face labor shortages as younger, healthier laborers migrate to cities.

Guest said: “We estimate that it takes about two hours a day of labor to maintain a one hectare cocoa farm to best practice, achieving yields well over 1.2 tons per hectare in Papua New Guinea.

“However, World Health Organization figures suggest around 30% of labor is lost due to poor health and nutrition in Papua New Guinea.”

According to surveys by the University of Sydney, 30% of cocoa households in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and 15% of cocoa households Sulawesi, Indonesia, fear food insecurity.

Almost half in Bougainville experience back pain, a third in Sulawesi have poor vision, while around a third of children in both geographies are stunted.

“Health becomes more important as young people are not recruited into cocoa farming and the average age of cocoa farmers increases. The most obvious way to increase labor productivity is to improve community health,”​ said Guest.

Frederick Amon-Armah, scientist at the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana

‘Trapped in cocoa’: Services companies to attract youth

Frederick Amon-Armah, a scientist at the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, part of Ghana Cocoa Board, claimed young people in cocoa communities often migrate to cities because of low producer prices for cocoa.

This leaves elderly farmers with intensive work and high labor costs. Moreover, those young people who stay may regret their decision of a life in cocoa and often shun productivity packages.

“Some results from our survey in Ghana on young cocoa farmers reveals that most of the young farmers (68%) in Asumura in the Brong Ahafo region involved in our survey felt stuck or trapped in cocoa farming such that even though they were farming, they were not proud of it,” ​said Amon-Armah.

The scientist said this particular community lacks amenities like accessible roads and mobile network coverage. He suggested company sustainability programs also invest in local infrastructure to entice young people to stay.

Amon-Armah suggested chocolate and cocoa companies support youth entrepreneurship programs or alternatively setup service companies that train young people, co-finance inputs and agree advance contracts ahead of growing seasons.

“If these companies take up farm maintenance, farm productivity could increase and hence increase farm revenue and hence, incomes for the farmers while the youth also earn some living and are encouraged to stay in the rural community.

“While they provide a service to farmers they may eventually ventures into cocoa farming themselves,”​ he said.

Sharing data

Ingram of Wageningen University & Research said smallholder farmers in West Africa are unlikely to use tractors and irrigation systems as seen on industrial plantations in Latin America, but even increased mechanization such as tools for pruning, grafting and drying are widely known, but rarely used.

“Not just farmers but also their farms and trees are old: Resulting in low yields and as they are generally old varieties that have less resistance to current pests, diseases and climate stresses – increasing the vicious low yield cycle,”​ she said.

She said sustainability programs are starting to promote intercropping, but farmers may lack knowledge about which crops to plant to fill the income loss gap while they rehabilitate or replant cocoa.

She urged industry to share all agronomic and socio-economic information it provides to traders and governments also with farmers.

Ingram, Guest and Amon-Armah are speaking at The International Symposium on Cocoa Research, which concludes on  Friday. See HERE​ for further details.

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Farmer pricing

Posted by Glyn Morgan,

De-commoditization of cocoa is an excellent suggestion as a way of helping ensure farmer sustainability. Tobacco is predominantly grown by small scale farmers and each year costings are carried out and base prices per grade are set for all contracted growers, thus ensuring farmer viability and crop supply sustainability. No futures market at all.

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Posted by Jaime,

Great article! I loooove cocoa. Anyone interested in this stuff should definitely check out the book Everyday Roots. It teaches you how to replace all the toxic chemicals in your life with healthy organic alternatives. Its completely changed my life and how I feel everyday! :)

Heres a great review of everday roots:

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