Blazing the trail for next generation cocoa R4D in West and Central Africa

The majority of the world’s cocoa, about 70%, is produced in West and Central Africa by Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Around 6 million ha are planted to the crop in the region, mostly in smallholder farms. Despite feeding the global chocolate market, worth an estimated US$98.3 billion, the regional cocoa sector is still besieged by persistent problems such as pests and diseases, ageing trees, outdated farming techniques, and limited research support.

The majority of the world’s cocoa, about 70%, is produced in West and Central Africa by Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Around 6 million ha are planted to the crop in the region, mostly in smallholder farms. Despite feeding the global chocolate market, worth an estimated US$98.3 billion, the regional cocoa sector is still besieged by persistent problems such as pests and diseases, ageing trees, outdated farming techniques, and limited research support.

In West and Central Africa, the growth of the cocoa sector has largely been hampered by fragmented research efforts. This is due to the lack of a common regional cocoa research-for-development (R4D) strategy to develop and deploy next generation research-based solutions to both long-standing problems (such as CSSVD) and emerging challenges (such as climate change).

It is in this context that IITA in collaboration with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), within the African Cocoa Initiative (ACI) project funded by the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), convened a regional symposium in 2016 that focused on bringing cocoa research to the next level and initiating the development of a regional cocoa sector strategy that will guide and synergize R4D efforts by research entities in West and Central Africa. The symposium was the first of its kind ever to be held in West Africa.

The symposium was a key component of the World Cocoa Foundation– African Cocoa Initiative project—and brought together the who’s who of the cocoa industry in the region representing a wide spectrum of value chain stakeholders from researchers and farmers to public and private sector players, national program partners, donors, traditional community leaders, and policy and decision-makers. The goal was to find ways to work collaboratively and identify and apply appropriate next generation, cutting-edge research to solve the problems that have been ailing the region’s cocoa sector to ensure its sustainability and profitability while benefiting smallholder farmers and protecting the environment.

The symposium provided a platform for scientific interaction, a display of products, and the strengthening of partnerships. It covered several thematic areas such as cocoa genetic resources and breeding; pests, diseases, and risk mitigation including climate change; rehabilitation and intensification; and the related policy and institutional framework. The delegates deliberated on research priorities, shared research experiences, identified research needs, and formed national, regional, and global alliances.

During the discussions on the latest research studies presented at the symposium, several findings were highlighted that could form the basis of a collective regional strategy. For example, it was found that the global demand for cocoa will continue to increase at an annual rate of 3%, buoyed by recent research findings that the consumption of cocoa in its various forms has confirmed health benefits.

To meet this growing demand, researchers must find ways to increase farmers’ access to improved planting materials, to rehabilitate ageing farms, and replace old, unproductive trees. This has long been a focus of WCF’s engagement on cocoa research— from support for the conservation of genetic resources to propagation and distribution of improved varieties in the field. Although some first- or second-generation improved planting materials with high yield abilities have been developed in the breeding programs of the national research institutes of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria, most farmers still use nonselected planting materials. Additionally, the seeds/planting materials are available only when farmers are busy with harvesting of cocoa pods.

The country institutions responsible for cocoa breeding have established a cooperative approach framework by setting up an African Cacao Breeders’ Working Group to coordinate and build support for cocoa genetic resources and breeding. The group focuses research on (1) investments in global cocoa collections; (2) development of new varieties that are higher yielding and tolerant of pests and diseases and resilient to climate change; (3) improvements in the genetic diversity in planting materials in the region; and (4) a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic and household behaviors in cocoa-growing areas that create sustainable livelihoods and communities. Issues of land tenure, profitability of farming, and effective extension practices are also critical.

Other important issues highlighted during the symposium included:

  • What is the regional strategy for genetic resource conservation of cocoa for its long-term security and use in breeding programs?
  • DNA fingerprinting research has shown that about 30–70% of breeders’ collections and seed garden materials are mislabeled. What are the steps planned to address this challenge when only 2% of the collection has been fingerprinted and it is not possible to fingerprint every tree in all the seed gardens in the region? What is the strategy to develop a regional true-to-type set of varieties that can be shared between and within countries?
Photo of Africa Cocoa farmers
Cocoa production in West and Central Africa is beseiged by numerous challenges.
  • What different propagation strategies should be adopted to avoid the spread of pests and diseases?
  • How do we ensure that climate-smart technologies in agriculture are economically profitable for the farmer/producer? What about newly emerging suitable areas? How does the issue of movement of planting material work in the absence of a regional quarantine system?
  • Is climate change a bane or boon for cocoa in West and Central Africa? How do we develop regional climate-smart agriculture for cocoa farmers to address the challenges posed by climate change?
  • How can the work on pests and diseases, particularly CSSVD, and be more coordinated at regional level for faster resolution?
  • What are the demands from the private sector in the region for cocoa sustainability so that value chain actors, including researchers, can position themselves more effectively to meet those demands?
  • How could we more effectively attract the youth to engage in cocoa farming? What are the effective ways to soften the blow of price volatility and reduce middlemen’s interventions so that young cocoa farmers can get more value for their work and investment?
  • How could we actively involve absentee farmer/landowners to enable caretaker farmers to invest in new technology developed/presented to them?
  • Africa contributes 74% to global production, although consumption in Africa is less than 5%. What are the national, regional, and continental efforts on training and demand-raising to enhance local consumption of cocoa by Africans?

Answers to these and other questions and issues raised and discussed during the symposium will form the basis of the future regional strategy for the cocoa sector in the region.

ORCID: 0000-0002-5184-5930, 0000-0001-6798-7821; 0000-0002-5557-9190, 0000-0001-6427-3428, 0000-0002-5715-0144

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