‘Help farmers develop more efficient farming practices’

In the Balancing the Living Income Challenge report published in November, WUR economists calculate that even if consumers were to pay twice as much for chocolate, this would indeed increase the income of small-scale farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast, but that many farmers would still not be able to earn a decent income from cocoa farming.

This is due to the relatively limited quantity of cocoa that these farmers produce. As a result, the income of individual farmers would only increase slightly, and the price increase would mostly benefit bigger farmers producing larger volumes.

Pruning and fertiliser

Larger cocoa farmers run more professional operations and are better able to make the leap to better plant material and soil cultivation. ‘They also have the time and money to learn how to prune cocoa trees, and they can afford chemical fertilisers,’ says Niels Anten, Professor of Crop and Weed Ecology in Wageningen. Anten carried out extensive research into cocoa farming and has for years been involved in field experiments in West Africa.

Prof.dr.ir. Niels Anten, Professor of Crop and Weed Ecology at Wageningen University & Research
Prof.dr.ir. Niels Anten, Professor of Crop and Weed Ecology at Wageningen University & Research

Lack of knowledge and money for investments

He says small-scale farmers are hard to reach. ‘They think: I’m not going to prune, because these branches will bear my cocoa beans next year, so I’m not going to take them away.’ Anten sees a parallel with the attitude of Dutch farmers in the wake of World War II. ‘Fruit growers at the time had huge apple trees that took up increasingly more room while producing increasingly fewer apples. Pruning cocoa trees to a smaller format allows for greater tree density and a higher yield. However, knowledge on how exactly to prune and the agricultural advisory services required to communicate this are lacking.’

Anten also indicates that there is a remarkable lack of fundamental knowledge. At the research stations of the Cocoa Research Institute in Ghana, he saw that the cocoa yield could easily be increased fivefold, from 550 kilograms to 3000 kilograms per hectare. ‘In the practice of the larger farms, yield did not increase beyond 1200 kilograms. This may be less than in the experimental trials, but it’s still double the national average.’

Speeding up the process

The researchers do not yet have a clear idea of the precise success and failure factors, but good soil management, combatting fungal diseases, and plant density all seem to play an important role. ‘We still have to answer basic questions, in collaboration with the research institutes, such as which fertilisers are most effective on what type of soil,’ says Anten. At the same time, he also signals that the time has come to really speed up the process. ‘Cocoa consumption is growing. If farmers don’t manage to increase their yield on existing cocoa plantations, this may be at the expense of the rainforest, or of land that now produces basic food crops.’