Pains Of Cocoa Farmers

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Cocoa farmers raise concerns over challenges affecting cocoa farming in Nigeria 

From the meaning derived from its botanical name, theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods,” to the multi-usage and economic value it commands, cocoa remains a vital food and cash crop. To many Nigerians, especially the people of Idanre, one of the leading cocoa producing towns in Nigeria, cocoa farming is a way of life, and the cocoa business their main source of revenue and means of livelihood. Unfortunately, like in every area of life, cocoa farming in Idanre and, indeed, Nigeria generally is bedevilled by a deluge of constraints.

Before crude oil was discovered in 1958, agriculture was contributing immensely to the gross domestic product. In fact, it was the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. But the leadership’s criminal neglect of the sector has ruined it over the years. In 1970, agriculture contributed 48 per cent to the GDP, but it dropped to 20.6 per cent in 1980 and had fallen to 23.3 per cent by 2005. Crude oil’s contribution to the GDP, on the other hand, rose from 29 per cent in 1980 to 59 per cent in 2005. Hence, the emergence of petroleum has driven the unwavering devotion given to cocoa to the oblivion and eroded Nigeria’s position as Africa’s leader in production of the crop.

Africa produces about 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa. Cote D’Ivoire is the leading cocoa producing nation with 1.3 million tonnes annually, while Ghana is rated second with about 900,000 tonnes. Nigeria produces only about 250,000 tonnes annually. While the number of people who depend on cocoa worldwide for livelihood is estimated at 40-50 million, annual cocoa production is put at 3 million tonnes. The total number of cocoa farmers worldwide is calculated at over 6 million, comprising mostly Africans, Asians, Central Americans and South Americans. Africa is believed to have the greatest number of cocoa farmers but despite this plus, majority of its regular cocoa farmers still wallow in poverty due to poor standard of living, and various economic and environmental problems.

The cocoa farming situation in Idanre presents a strong case study of how the business has sunk and reflects the numerous problems cocoa farmers are experiencing. Idanre, a town believed to be founded over 800 years ago is surrounded by clusters of isolated rocky hills or mountains and located between Akure and Ondo towns in Ondo state. Idanre people are predominantly farmers of cash crops. When it comes to cocoa business, Idanre is a place to reckon with owing to its rich humus soil and rainforest which support cocoa cultivation. Massive cocoa farming brought Idanre to limelight.  From Alade Idanre, a suburb, to the ancient Idanre town, Odode Idanre, the smell of cocoa oozes in the atmosphere. As observed by TheNEWS, virtually every street in the mountainous town is laced with shops selling dry cocoa seeds. The seeds are ubiquitous on the streets, spread on sack to sun-dry.

Cocoa farming in Idanre has become a generational business. It is a daily sight to behold cocoa farming families pack dried cocoa seeds, sort out the good ones, bag and weigh them.  The product is then sold to the government or exporters. A kilo is sold for N300-N350, while a bag of cocoa goes for N20,000. A cocoa pod goes for N50-N100. The purchasing price of a tonne is N300,000-N350,000. Cocoa farmers in Nigeria generally lament that despite the huge prospects in cocoa business, government has been lukewarm in combating the avalanche of problems confronting cocoa production and redeeming its lost glory as the one-time leading cocoa producing nation in Africa.

To Joshua Olawale Oyedele, National Vice President, Cocoa Farmers Association of Nigeria, and Chairman of the Ondo State chapter, the decline in cocoa production and business can be traced to the oil boom of the 1970s when government shifted attention from cocoa production to the cheap billions of dollars earned from oil production. Since then, federal government’s interest in cocoa production has terribly waned. As a result, cocoa farming is largely left to small-scale farmers, especially in the rural areas. Chief Rufus Orosundafosi, one of the renowned cocoa farmers in Idanre and Chief Executive, Folaforsale Nigeria Limited, Idanre asserted that finance is the major problem of the business. Orosundafosi, who has been a cocoa farmer for 46 years, said farmers of the crop, especially the ones in the rural areas have not been fortunate to enjoy financial aid or loans, and would do well with government assistance “Cocoa farmers, especially the ones in the rural areas have been seriously marginalised and neglected. Majority of the farmers and the lands being used for cultivation are also old. Cocoa money is a seasonal thing. Sometimes, we, the big players, are forced to lend money to the small farmers when things become so hard for them, in order to sustain productivity,” he said.

This magazine observed in Idanre that most of the regular cocoa farmers are peasant farmers who delve into farming mainly to sustain their families. Majority of them are in their middle age – in their 40s and 50s. There is the fear that cocoa farming in the town may soon peter out as many of the young men engaged in it are increasingly taking to the commercial motorcycle venture or gunning for menial jobs in the cities. The young people still staying on the farms were found to be predominantly teenagers who are compelled by their parents control to do so. Joseph Oloruntoba, an indigenous cocoa farmer warned that if nothing was done to address the increasing youth lethargy in cocoa farming, cocoa productivity might experience a decline, or even total erosion.

Another constraint mentioned by a group of cocoa farmers is that they hardly benefit from the so-called government intervention funds/loans. They revealed that even some of the seeds, especially the high yielding seeds,  meant for farmers courtesy of the government, are often hijacked by ghost farmers while genuine farmers are left out. Most of the farmers are also still applying old methods and tools due to illiteracy. While in countries like Ghana, most of the farmers are using high yielding and improved varieties, the old and regular seeds are in vogue among Nigerian farmers. According to Temitope Ajanaku, an Akure-based cocoa entrepreneur, while cocoa farmers in Ghana, as observed by him during his last visit to that country, use, at least, 15 bags of fertilisers per hectare, their Nigerian counterparts use five bags and, even in some cases, none. The edge, he said, accounts for the increase in cocoa production in Ghana.

According to a research conducted by Tree Crop Units, Ministry of Agriculture, Ondo State, cocoa seeds produced in Nigeria are not of lesser quality despite the constraining factors. In the course of the research, Stephen Ogunmola, Project Manager, TCU, revealed that the team did an empirical analysis and comparism of samples of cocoa brought from Ghana and those of Nigeria. It was discovered that the Ghanaian cocoa is weightier than Nigerian cocoa, hence this accounts for the rising preference for cocoa produced in Nigeria. Timileyin Kolade, another cocoa farmer added that Ghanaians have a good agricultural structure or system that enables them to devote more attention to cocoa production.

Oyedele corroborated that cocoa produced in Nigeria is superior. “Cocoa produced in Nigeria is far better than that of Ghana. Even some of their farmers prefer that of Nigeria because it has a unique smell which that of Ghana doesn’t possess,” he said. He condemned the perpetual hike in the prices of chemical and cost of labour. He also spoke on other problems: “To practise mechanised farming is a serious challenge because you need to acquire tractors, graders and other equipment. If you observe what is happening you will discover that most of our farmers still depend on using cutlasses, contrary to what is obtainable in other countries. They embrace mechanised farming and that is the reason they are doing better. Even though most of the cocoa products manufacturing companies, especially the ones in the south-west are doing their best, they are financially stretched due to the high cost of operations in Nigeria.”

Oyedele applauded the courage of cocoa products manufacturing companies to stay in business despite the short supply of cocoa seeds from farmers. There are reports of some cocoa manufacturing companies threatening to shut down operation due to rising operational cost. Some farmers fear that cocoa seeds may witness scarcity if government doesn’t intervene soon. But Oyedele allayed such fear. ‘‘Those complaining of scarcity cannot substantiate that. Government is making plans to increase cocoa production and we are all waiting for the new variety. The people who paid first for the seedlings were given first but we are being assured that we will get more seeds,” he said. Farmers are also ruing high rainfall this year and have been counting their losses. Another setback identified by the farmers is land unavailability. Lands for cocoa cultivation are becoming limited due to urbanisation – the need to construct houses, infrastructure and other social and human amenities.

Ogunmola assured that the Ondo State government is addressing the constraints. He revealed that the government has equipped its 50 hectares seed gardens with more seedlings and high yielding variety. The seed gardens are like banks for cocoa seedlings or nurseries and are located in various towns across the state. They are sited in Owena, Ibule-Ipinsa, Alade, Ileoluji and Otu. Shaba, the coordinator for all the farms in the state showed this magazine a special high-yielding cocoa breed referred to as WACRI, a product of the West Africa Cocoa Research, Ghana, which is meant to be distributed to farmers at maturity. Cocoa farmers generally are advocating for the adequate funding and establishment of cocoa nurseries across cocoa producing states. They are of the belief such a step will boost cocoa yields and availability of improved varieties.

Meanwhile, the federal government has promised to disburse N5.6 million to the International Cocoa Coordinating Organisation, ICCO, to improve cocoa production in Nigeria. Samuel Ortom, Minister of  State For Trade and Investment, gave the assurance recently in Abuja during a visit of the ICCO team. “Cocoa is key to the economy of the country and it is high time we stepped up efforts to put cocoa in its rightful place,” he said. Other African countries that are part of the ICCO project include Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana and Togo. But one of the prominent questions in the mouth of most cocoa farmers is: When will the Nigerian government sincerely accord cocoa its rightful attention?

—Femi Ayodele/TheNEWS Africa

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