By Obafemi Oredein
Top Nigerian cocoa researcher, Peter Aikpokpodion, believes that cocoa farmers in West Africa should not be poor, but rather, be some of the richest people in the world.
Aikpokpodion, is a former Chief Research Officer at the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN) and is currently at the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology, University of Calabar. At CRIN he headed the team that produced the new eight cocoa varieties that yield fruits in 18-24 months (CRIN Tc 1 to 8). Aikpokpodion was also a former adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, (former Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria and current President of the African Development Bank), on Nigeria’s Cocoa Transformation Agenda.
On the side lines of the 1st National Cocoa Day for Nigerian cocoa farmers, Aikpokpodion, explains that times have changed as Nigerian cocoa farmers are no longer protected like in the days of the now defunct Nigeria Cocoa Marketing Board.
He says farmers must now work as businessmen to earn higher incomes from cocoa cultivation. Excerpts:
How did efforts to produce the new cocoa varieties begin and what were the aims for developing them?
The team I headed developed the new hybrid varieties of cocoa at CRIN after doing research for 10 years. The team had support from some international agencies and foreign chocolate manufacturers. We released the new varieties 40 years after the old varieties were released and they were well received, not just because they are early and high yielding but because of the superior flavor confirmed by chocolate makers. The new varieties meet the needs of cocoa processors with a high butter content, superior cocoa base chocolate and excellent bean quality.
The new cocoa varieties are a game changer because they can increase the earnings of farmers so much. They were developed to enhance production in the country and obtain disease-resistance cocoa. We expected farmers using these new varieties to increase their cocoa production and earn higher incomes so that they could live better lives.
Can you explain the results you got with the new varieties?
The new hybrid cocoa varieties we discovered at CRIN are prolific. They produce early instead of every 4/5 years as is with the old varieties. I planted some of the new cocoa varieties in my own farm. By 18 months the cocoa was already producing and in 24 months I was already harvesting my first cocoa pods. By the second year the pods on the trees had increased to 58 from around 40 pods. The new varieties can yield 1.5-2.0 tonner/ha per year compared to 300-400 kg/ha per year with the old ones.
However, the new varieties have not been produced in very large quantities for farmers to plant them massively, so the multiplication and distribution of the new varieties have been limited.
If Nigeria has these cocoa varieties, why are farmers not making more money and are still classified as poor?
In the 1970’s it was honourable to be a cocoa farmer. Through cocoa trading alone they could send their children to school and overseas, they could build good houses and travel abroad. But not anymore.
Times and circumstances have changed, and we have a new reality. More than 90% of our farmers are doing less than 3-5 ha, which is the minimum needed to not be in poverty.
Those with a small farm will be struggling and cannot make enough money to invest in the farm. Without that you cannot hire labourers, buy chemicals, fertilizer, planting materials.
So, cocoa farmers must join cooperative societies to band together. By doing this, farmers have bargaining power and banks can discuss with the cooperatives that have a total of 500-2,000 ha of cocoa farmland.
The banks can give the cooperative societies loans and link them to up takers. So, for farmers to be successful they must come together as a viable business entity to be able to raise finance to increase the size of their farms, buy improved cocoa materials, fertilizer, and good agro-chemicals. By doing this they can increase their cocoa production and earn higher incomes.
How can the governments in Nigeria help cocoa farmers?
A: All the governments of cocoa producing states in Nigeria should give attention to cocoa production. The government should give special attention to the cocoa production hubs in terms of the provision of rural infrastructure. They must provide extension services, electricity, hospitals, good roads and schools. All these amenities are needed for the community to thrive. The Cocoa Farmers Association of Nigeria (CFAN), more funding for CRIN to be able to perform its function of cocoa research to help farmers. The government should also reactivate quality control systems of the past, facilitate local consumption of cocoa for example by including cocoa in its school feeding programme, so children can begin to take cocoa from a young age.
Farmers have been asking government to bring back the defunct Cocoa Marketing Board in Nigeria. What is your view on this?
We now operate in a free cocoa market economy meaning that farmers are now exposed. Before they were protected by the Cocoa Marketing Board where the government had forward contracts for the farmers. Whether the price went up or down on the world market, the government would pay farmers a fixed amount. Now farmers are exposed to the volatility of the world market price which means farmers must now think like businessmen. But Nigeria needs a cocoa coordinating structure managed by the private sector and supported by the federal government, which will direct the country’s cocoa affairs for the benefit of the national economy.