Climate change, ageing trees threaten African cocoa

Jun 7, 2012 by

Thu Jun 7, 2012 4:12pm GMT  Reuters

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Climate change, ageing plantations and a shortage of young farmers risk strangling Africa’s cocoa industry, a top official from a bloc of 10 producer nations said.

Africa produced roughly three quarters of the world’s cocoa last year.

Output on the continent has grown steadily over the past two decades and top growers Ivory Coast and Ghana, responsible for 60 percent of global supply, both produced record harvests in the 2011/2012 season.

But that trend could soon change as a shift in global weather patterns creates increasingly dry conditions in Africa, said Nanga Coulibaly, general secretary of the Alliance of Cocoa Producing Countries (COPAL).

“There are risks. Cocoa trees like certain climatic conditions, and we’re seeing that those conditions are changing in African cocoa producing countries,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a three-day meeting of agronomists in Ivory Coast.

The region’s once reliable rainy seasons are now less predictable. Nearly all of Africa’s cocoa producers have experienced abnormally long dry spells this year.

As a result, the International Cocoa Organisation sees African production falling to 2.8 million tonnes, a drop of 12 percent from the 2010/2011 season.

“The way things are looking, there is a need to concentrate on drought-resistant (tree) varieties. This is a phenomenon that must be prevented, and work is under way towards that,” he said.

Even without the added concern of harsher weather conditions, replanting is a necessity, Coulibaly said.

“There is a problem of ageing trees, which account for 50 to 60 percent of plantations. Those trees are either no longer doing well or are sensitive to certain diseases, and that affects production,” he said.

Older trees require regular chemical treatment to ward off diseases including black pod and swollen shoot and protect against parasites, all of which are growing problems in West and Central Africa.

Meanwhile, the depletion of nutrients in the soil on older plantations has also created a need for increased use of fertilisers in order to maintain production levels.


The investment required for these techniques remains beyond the means of many farmers, who have seen their incomes stagnate or fall.

The rural poverty rate in Ivory Coast, for example, jumped from 15 to 62 percent between 1985 and 2008 despite a doubling of production.

Low incomes and underdevelopment have in turn pushed many young people to seek work in Africa’s rapidly growing cities.

“We’re seeing that the population of cocoa farmers is ageing, and in some cases there is a worrying lack of interest from the youth to take over,” Coulibaly said.

“What we are recommending in this case is the transformation of rural zones, including (building) roads, hospitals, and general infrastructure to make living conditions attractive in order to retain the youth.”

Several African countries have identified the threats to the sector and are beginning to take steps to combat them.

Before the start of each campaign, Ghana fixes farmgate prices, guaranteeing farmer incomes and promoting reinvestment in plantations. The result has been rapidly expanding production and better quality cocoa.

Ivory Coast is now following suit, abandoning more than a decade of sector liberalisation in favour of price guarantees for the 2012/2013 season.

With the current high levels of production masking long-term perils, it could be some time before the impact of these measures is felt, however, and more countries must follow suit.

“If in the coming years nothing changes, if strong decisions are not taken, we fear that cocoa production will decline considerably in relation to expectations and desired production,” Coulibaly said.


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