Despite governments’ promises, no rebound for Nigeria’s struggling cocoa sector

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It was a bright Monday morning in February when this reporter arrived at Odo Aladura, a community largely inhabited by cocoa farmers in Ondo East Local Government of Ondo State.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), an international auditing firm, Ondo being the largest cocoa producing state in Nigeria, has an output capacity of about 77,000 tons annually.

Odo aladura is one of several communities that earned the state the ranking. However, the dwindling fortunes of farmers in the community is fast reducing production.

“Let me tell you the truth, we don’t have people to work for us anymore,” says Samuel Akinsanya, an 87-year-old farmer in the community. “Most of our cocoa is in the bush, but no one to cultivate it,” he added.

Mr Akinsanya is one of the oldest cocoa farmers in Ondo East Local Government. He still relishes the good old times of high production but could do next to nothing to bring back the time. “Cocoa farming is not balanced anymore, most of our youths left cocoa farming for other menial jobs,” he said stressing that lack of incentives from the government is also discouraging the older farmers.

“We have cocoa that has spent over four to five years inside the forest with no one to assist in harvesting, no capital to employ people to work and no basic tools and inputs to help ease the process,” Mr Akinsanya said in a tone laced with hopelessness.

Edache Abel, 38, also shared in the pain. Originally from Benue State, Mr Abel relocated to Ondo State in the quest for greener pastures in cocoa farming 15 years ago. He told this reporter that his cocoa output continues to decline annually.

“I’ve been into cocoa farming for more than 15 years now, every year, the output keeps decreasing. It has not improved for more than five years now because many of the trees have died,” he said.

“Before, our cocoa used to produce well, but due to lack of chemicals and fertilizers it has stopped growing well.”

Most of the farmers who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES believe they can do more if they are supported with viable seedlings, fertilizer, simple farm tools and chemicals that help to protect cocoa pods from pests and diseases.

“The government knows better ways to assist more than I do. However, we need chemicals, cocoa seeds, cutlass, hoes, even farm boots that we wear to the farm. The government should please assist us in this regard,” Mr Abel said.

Roland Obi, 28, is a cocoa farmer in Balep, a community that prides itself with mass production of cocoa, banana, and timber in Ikom, Cross River, a state in Nigeria’s south south region.

Mr Roland told this reporter that non-motorable roads remain a major challenge to cocoa farmers in the community.

“This is the only way we can access our farms,” he said. “The roads are not motorable, you’re even lucky you came around during the dry season, you for ‘see something.”

The challenge of transportation in Balep is so worse that the farmers could only access their farms by motorbikes. Some of them were seen struggling on the eroded path. Apart from bad roads, lack of need chemicals also poses a challenge to the farmers.

“You cannot carry more than a bag of cocoa on your bike. The roads are bad, the chemicals to spray our cocoa are expensive and no money to pay people to work, the little I can do is what I do. I love cocoa, and I love to farm cocoa,” the 28-year-old farmer said.

“I buy a sachet of the chemical I do spray on this farm N400, I need up to 400 sachets on this very farm, now multiply the figures you know what I mean, it is not easy” he added.

Takim Ayok, in his late 60s, wants the government to do more to boost the morale of farmers in Cross River.

“We don’t derive anything from the government. Even those people we sell our cocoa to, we don’t derive anything from them, not even chemicals or fertilizers from them,” he said in frustration.

Cocoa was a major agricultural export commodity in Nigeria, and a top foreign exchange earner in the 1950s and 60s. Prior to the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantities in the 1970s, Nigeria was the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa.

Agriculture was the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy before the discovery of crude oil. From 1960 to 1969, the sector accounted for an average of 57.0% of GDP and generated 64.5% of export earnings. From 1970 to the late 2000s, the sector’s contribution to GDP and export earnings steadily declined, because Nigeria’s focus shifted to petroleum.

Nigeria’s average cocoa production declined from 420,000 tons in the 60s to 170,000 tons in 1999. Production rose to 389,272 tons between 2000 and 2010, but declined to 192,000 tons in 2015 and 2016. Nigeria dropped to fourth place in the global ranking this period. However, Nigeria is currently the sixth largest producer of this commodity.

Data from PwC indicates that a combination of rural poverty, increasing rural-urban migration, land degradation and the absence of incentives have kept production at a subsistence level.

Findings PREMIUM TIMES revealed that aside farmers are not getting necessary farm inputs such as seedlings, fertilizers and chemicals, poor road network to farms is impacting on production.

For instance, cocoa farmers in Balep and Oke Ogun undergo strenuous hikes daily in order to access their farms. Also, they pay as high as N3000 and even more in rainy seasons to transport their harvest from the farm to their respective village settlements.

This reality has forced 40-year-old Adesoro Grace, a farmer in Odo Aladura to abandon cocoa for palm.

“Palm trees do not require much fertilizers or any form of chemicals so long you can take good care of it,” she said. “That is what we focus on now so that we can sponsor our children to school. As you can see, we’re on our way to harvest palm trees.”

Another farmer, Veronica Akitan, who has been cultivating cocoa for over 25 years, told this reporter that the output of her cocoa farm has plummeted in recent times, noting that she spends a lot of money to purchase chemicals and fertilizers but during harvest, the output doesn’t compliment what she had spent so far.

“All these cocoa you’re seeing are not producing again, chemicals are too expensive, but at the end of the day, I only make little profit. We are begging our government to please help us with something like fertilizers,” she said.

Checks by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that cocoa farmers in these regions do not have access to subvention or soft loans from the federal government despite that cocoa is among the mandate crop of the federal government’s Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP).

In November 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari launched the ABP to provide farm inputs in kind and cash to small-holder farmers (SHFs) to boost agricultural production and for the country to reverse its negative balance of payments on food.

Farmers captured under this programme include those cultivating cereals, cotton, roots and tubers, sugarcane, tree crops(cocoa, rubber, oil palm, etc.) legumes, tomato and livestock.

The loans are disbursed through any of the Deposit Money Banks (DMBs), Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) and Microfinance Banks (MFBs), all of which the programme recognises as Participating Financial Institutions (PFIs).

According to the guidelines of the programme, upon harvest, benefiting farmers are expected to repay their loans with harvested produce, which must cover the loan principal and interest, to an ‘anchor’ who pays the cash equivalent to the farmer’s account.

Efforts made by this reporter to reach Isaac Okoroafor, spokesperson to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) were unsuccessful, as calls and text messages to his line were not answered or replied to.

Also, Sayina Rima, the president of Cocoa Association of Nigeria (CAN) could not be reached for comments on this story.

Rasheed Adedeji, the Director of Cocoa Research Department of Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN) said the major reason why Nigeria still lags behind in cocoa production globally could also be a failure to pass across technologies to cocoa farmers.

“We have the potential to reclaim our position in the global market; one of our major problems is that we have enough technology on the shelf, but to get them across to farmers, the support is not all that there,” he said.

“When you get to our markets, you will see fairly used jute bags imported from Ghana, written there Ghana Cocoa; our farmers will buy it and use to bag our cocoa then, export it through back doors.

“When you see that one outside the country, you will think it is a cocoa bag from Ghana. So a lot of things are playing out that affects the actual production figure of Nigeria’s cocoa,” Mr Adedeji said.

He said the porosity of our borders also contributes to the decline in Nigeria’s cocoa figures. This, he said, reinforces the smuggling of expired chemicals from neighbouring countries which finds their way into the Nigerian market.

“Most of these not for sale from other countries have expired, and discarded from these countries. All these chemicals find their way to our market. When the farmers get to the market, they will see that they are very cheap, they will buy it and it will not work.

“Those chemicals that we’ve screened and recommended to them, they will be complaining that the prices are too high, the farmers cannot afford it. We’re appealing to the government to develop strategies of subsidizing it.”

Mr Adedeji said the aging of most cocoa trees in Nigeria also contributes to the low output farmers are experiencing.

“In agriculture, when your crop is becoming old and the productivity is coming down, you need to replant and rehabilitate all those ones that are jettisoned. Just as we know that any plantation that is not being well taken care of, will not have the ability to produce to the maximum productivity level.”

Mr Adedeji urged farmers to phase out old cocoa plants by replacing them with improved varieties from CRIN to boost yield.

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