Special report: Ghana’s cocoa crisis

Disease, climate change and industry indifference at root of threat to cocoa supplies

By Kojo Hayford

- Last updated on GMT

Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease (CSSVD) is devastating  Ghana's cocoa crop. Pic:cocoapost.com
Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease (CSSVD) is devastating Ghana's cocoa crop. Pic:cocoapost.com

Related tags Cocoa Ghana Cocoa bean Sustainability

Cocoa production in Ghana has been falling off the cliff since posting a record 1.047 million metric tonnes (MT) at the close of the 2020-21 season. A multiplicity of factors account for the downward trend in production, including a prolonged El-Niño phenomenon, illegal and an outbreak of Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease (CSSVD).

Ghana, currently the world’s second-largest cocoa producer, has seen its crop output decline to 667,500 MT in 2023 with projections for the prevailing 2023-24 crop around 570,000 tonnes. But this nightmarish trend is not unique to the country.

Neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s leading producer of cocoa beans, also finds itself battered by the effects of climate change. From a 2.25 million MT crop output in 2020-21, it closed the last crop year at 2.18 million MT with an even worse outlook for the current season.

The result is skyrocketing prices sparked by a global supply deficit​ projected for a third straight season this year. Cote d’Ivoire alone is expected to record a shortfall close to 600,000 MT for just the 2023-24 main crop.

“We are in a very tight balance,” said Paul Davis, president of European Cocoa Association. He fears the situation will likely hold for another 18 months to three years.

 “There is no cavalry that’s coming to the rescue…consumers will need to understand that it will cost a bit more in the near-term, but in the long-term, it will be good for the environment,” he told Bloomberg.

CSSVD devastation

For decades, Ghana has been engaged in this painful and long-drawn-out battle against this pestilent cocoa disease.

Official data indicate that “CSSVD accounts for about 17% loss in cocoa production annually,” according to Dr Kwame Owusu-Ansah, National Coordinator of the country’s national cocoa rehabilitation effort initiated by the regulator, COCOBOD.

The “area of CSSVD infestation currently stands at 592,230.02 hectares according to data from our third country-wide survey [in 2023].”

This represents an average 88% increase in disease coverage in six years, compared to the 315,000 hectares initially recorded at the first survey in 2017.

There are now concerns that if concerted multi-stakeholder action is not taken the disease could sweep across Ghana’s 1.9 million hectares of cocoa farms.

CSSVD causes and treatment

The Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease (CSSVD) was first detected in the mid-1930s, according to the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG).

Plant pathologists say the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV) is transmitted by insect vectors known as mealybugs but may not rule out deliberate and non-deliberate human activities in the spread even from one region or country to another.

Once a tree is infected, the virus begins to make millions of copies of itself and spread to new tissues of the cocoa tree, eventually sapping life out of every cell of the cocoa tree.

Scientists explain that the symptoms of this strain on the cocoa tree manifest as reddening of the leaf tissues (red vein banding, RVB), the depletion of plant chlorophyll (leaf chlorosis), leaf deformations, and then swellings of shoots and roots.

This is why the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease is named after this characteristic stem or shoot swellings that are often seen in some affected plants.

The devastating effects of CSSVD for farmers

Kwabena Nartey cocoa farmer cssvd cocoapost
cocoa farmer Kwabena Nartey. Pic: cocoapost.com

Peter Kwabena Nartey, 68, is a cocoa farmer from the Suaman-Dadieso District in Ghana’s Western North Region. He is one of thousands of cocoa farmers living with the harrowing experience of losing their livelihoods to the devastating effect of CSSVD.

 “I observed swellings on some cocoa trees in my farm but I had no clue what it was,” Nartey said.

He reported the ‘strange’ development to AGRIC extension officers. He recalled “They inspected it and it turned out to be the deadly disease,” known in local parlance as ‘kokoo sasabrɔ’ (cocoa rheumatism).

He was advised to immediately remove all cocoa trees from his 3.2-hectare farm to curb the spread.

To restore the farm, which has been his source of livelihood for 20 years, Nartey must cough up at least US$2,000 per hectare to rehabilitate his CSSVD-infected farm. But since he does not have the wherewithal, he decided to let nature take its course despite the risk of fanning a spread to adjoining cocoa farms.

Trapped in this difficult situation, scores of Ghana’s cocoa farmers have turned to other cash crops, like oil palm, rubber, and coconut; or traded in their farmlands to illegal gold miners, who are reported to offer attractive cash packages.

Cocoa buyers voice concerns

Research indicates that within one year of infection, a cocoa’s farm productivity may drop by 25% and would fall further to about 50% the second year.

“In very severe cases, cocoa trees succumb to the virus and die within 3 years of infection”, in which case “there is a 100% yield loss,” according to the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana.

Industry players say the correlation between the raging Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease and the sharp declining production cannot be swept under the carpet.

“The core of the business of licensed cocoa buying companies (LBCs) is to buy cocoa and buy as much as possible. If the cocoa is not there, then you’re out of business,” said Victus Dzah, General Secretary of Ghana’s Licensed Cocoa Buyers Association (LICOBAG).

“The impact of CSSVD has reduced the tonnage. Ghana produced 1 million tonnes in 2020-21. [In] 2021/22 too we could have got that, but because of this disease we couldn’t so it is affecting our business.”

According to CRIG, Africa’s foremost cocoa research centre, “There are no curative treatments for CSSVD yet.” Its scientists recommend the “cutting-out” practice as a form of destructive treatment.

They also, as a form of precaution, advise cutting out all cocoa trees that are in physical contact with the felled CSSVD trees.

By this method, all cocoa trees on infected farms are removed and the farm treated and replanted with new disease-resistant hybrid seedlings. Globally, more than 300 million cocoa trees are estimated have been destroyed by CSSVD.

Proven intervention

Ghana is not new at implementing this scientific recommendation known in industry parlance as cocoa rehabilitation. Between 1989 and 1993, the West African country procured a $127-million AfDB-led loan to tackle a CSSVD outbreak with a coverage of about 17,900 hectares.

The five-year Cocoa Rehabilitation Project was implemented as part of a broad cocoa sector reform to boost productivity and increase production output by eliminating bottlenecks like the CSSVD.

That effort paid off and the disease was effectively controlled by cutting-out 16,537 hectares of diseased farms and replanting some 3,810 hectares of hybrid cocoa.

A 2002 Africa Development Bank project performance evaluation report linked the cocoa rehabilitation project to an annual incremental production of 110,000 – 115,000 tons.

This is corroborated by data obtained from Ghana Cocoa Board which indicates that the country’s output spiked from a low of 188,171 tonnes in the 1987/88 crop season to 403,843 tonnes by close of the 1995/96 season, representing 114.6% increase in less than 10 years.

Ghana’s new CSSVD wave

In 2017, following concerns over stagnation in Ghana’s production the sector regulator, COCOBOD, commissioned a nationwide survey of all cocoa farms.

Among others, the report revealed an unprecedented scale of CSSVD infestation across the cocoa belt which comprises seven cocoa-growing regions.

“We had 315,000 hectares of cocoa farms that had been affected by the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease,” Joseph Boahen Aidoo, Chief Executive of Ghana Cocoa Board told Cocoa Post in a 2022 interview.

“Apart from that we also had over 400,000 hectares of cocoa farms that could be described as moribund, in other words overaged and therefore not fruiting.”

In a bid to tackle the HIV-like disease, the government of Ghana in 2020 secured a loan from the African Development Bank (AfDB) to scale its successful cocoa rehabilitation pilot project carried out two years prior.

Out of the $600-million AfDB credit facility, some $230 million was voted to rehabilitate 156,400 hectares of CSSVD-infected cocoa farms across the country.

The intervention dubbed the National Cocoa Rehabilitation Programme (NCRP) involved paying out a compensation package of GHS1,000 per hectare apiece to both the cocoa farmer and land owner (where applicable) to hand in diseased farms to COCOBOD for rehabilitation at no cost to them. The farm is also maintained by COCOBOD for 2 years, after which period it is handed over to the farmer.

EU Deforestation Regulation

Encumbered by labour challenges and a rather slow pace of programme implementation, Ghana Cocoa Board in 2022 partnered with a private Ghanaian farm management and agri-forest landscape restoration services company to accelerate progress.

With a field personnel or labour strength of more than 30,000 spread across all cocoa rehabilitation operational regions, Afarinick Company Limited is leveraging its peerless capacity to help breathe fresh life into cocoa production in Ghana.

It boasts of a 50-million capacity industrial seedling production facility, experience in farm maintenance and extension services, sustainability consulting, and logistics services.

“We believe the cocoa rehabilitation programme is a blessing of sorts, in that it gives Ghana the opportunity to not only rejuvenate cocoa plantations but as well implement cocoa agroforestry systems for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and supply chain resilience,” said Ms Effe Heathcote, Projects & Sustainability Manager of Afarinick Company Limited.

She noted that while providing jobs for young people, the firm also operates a policy that prioritises employment for CSSVD-affected cocoa farmers as a way of empowering them with alternative income, until their cocoa farms can produce again.

The leading Ghanaian farm service company says its deployment of modern farm machinery like motorised slashers for farm maintenance, and earth augers for drilling planting holes means it’s able to delivery with speed.

According to officials, Afarinick’s formalised system of engaging farm labour ensures strict adherence to legal, regulatory and industry labour and human rights requirements answering one of the cocoa sector’s biggest challenges.

In compliance with regulatory requirements like the EU Deforestation Regulation, Afarinick has invested in the application of geographic information systems (GIS) and drone technology for mapping, field monitoring and real time reporting of activities.

“By implementing the three main activities of treatment, farm establishment and farm maintenance, we are proud to have so far successfully rehabilitated over 61,000 hectares of diseased cocoa farms,” said Ben Asare, General Manager of Afarinick, adding “we are poised to forge key partnerships to catalyse investments for nature-based solutions.”

Partnership to save Ghana’s cocoa production

“So far, a total of 61,656 farms covering an area 67,385.43 hectares have been successfully rehabilitated. Out of this, a total of 19,627 farms covering an area of 18,110.94 hectares have been certified ready to be handed over to their respective beneficiaries,” said Dr Owusu-Ansah, Coordinator of the National Cocoa Rehabilitation Programme.

With the outstanding area to be rehabilitated currently standing at 524,844.59Ha or 87.8% of the CSSVD infection coverage nationwide, stakeholders believe more would have to be done for the rate of rehab to catch up with the spread.

But despite the impact of the disease being felt in consuming countries, the industry has so far acted with complacency to the situation.

“With the exception of funding support from AfDB and the World Bank who is also coming on board, there are no supports of such sorts from COCOBOD partners currently,” Dr Owusu-Ansah said.

So far Ghana has been singlehandedly holding up against the disease. But its feeble war chest is not a match for the over 21,600Ha per annum rate of new CSSVD infections.

Cocoa production experts are projecting disastrous consequences should industry continue to sit on the fence “Because we will be there and the market will dry up and that will be the end of it.”

While cocoa farmers continue to suffer loss and damage of livelihood on the frontline, the aftereffect can also be seen contributing to record cocoa prices in February 2024.

  • Kojo Hayford is editor of theCocoaPost.com
  • Sources: COCOBOD / Historical data, CHED, Ghana Cocoa Board / Cocoa Post

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