Some young people, especially graduates, see cocoa farming as a poorly rewarding business meant for only the aged people who have resigned to fate.
They think farmers, and by extension cocoa producers, have nothing else to show for their labour and drudgery except a beggarly existence.
These perceptions are not only false but also far from the truth. Appearance is actually different from reality.
While it is true that most farmers appear poor, and their illiteracy prevents them from innovative management of their agribusinesses, it is a wrong perception thinking they all drag out a miserable existence.
As a matter of fact, many cocoa farmers in Nigeria are well-to-do, able to live decent and honest lifestyles that are not in any way inferior to those in other professions.
To start a cocoa plantation, the following are essential.
Land acquisition, preparation and transplanting
Cocoa grows well in the rain forest ecologies, and over 14 states of the country are suitable for its production, including Taraba and Zamfara. Land acquisition either by purchase or leasing in cocoa growing areas is the first step.
Cocoa is a perennial crop (able to last and fruit for over 70 years), and this should, therefore, be considered while negotiating for land.
This is why a farmer in Ondo State, Sunday Olatunji, said buying the land is better than leasing it, for the land owners might fail to renew the lease while the cocoa trees are still prolific.
It could also lead to an abnormal increase of leasing fees, knowing the helplessness of the farmer.
However, a former Executive Director of the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), Ibadan, Professor Malachy Akoroda, said community leaders should give hectares of land to youths for cocoa plantations, saying, “Youths have no resources to acquire land for agriculture they are being encouraged to embrace.”
Doing this, to him, would break one of the most difficult hurdles in attracting the youth into the sector.
Land preparation for a cocoa plantation is technical. Cocoa trees do not survive under scorching sunlight, but do under some trees. They equally grow poorly under heavy shadows.
Therefore, clearing the land demands that smaller forest trees are left at the spacing of about four metres apart to serve as covers for cocoa seedlings.
Another cocoa farmer and aggregator, Isaac Alade, based in Ilesha, Osun State, told The Guardian that in some arable farmlands where annual crops are already being planted, intercropping with cassava would give cocoa seedlings some protective shades. Cocoa seedlings are also intercropped with plantain suckers.
Plant population, improved seedlings and sources
Maximising the plant population in a cocoa plantation is economical. It helps a farmer to harvest optimal yields each cycle and prevents weed infestations and the attendant cost of controlling weeds.
About 1,000 to 1,200 cocoa trees grow per hectare, meaning an average of between 400 and 500 cocoa trees per acre of land.
To maintain 1,200 trees at the point fruiting, no fewer than 1,500 seedlings should be planted on one hectare to take care of trees that would not survive.
Professor Peter Aikpokpodion, one of the foremost scientists who worked on the eight current improved varieties available in Nigeria, recommends that cocoa should be planted using three metre by three metre spacing (or 10x10feet) apart. That will give a plant population of about 1,111.
The features of the improved varieties include early maturity, pest resistance and higher yields, compared with the old varieties.
Developed by Professor Aikpokpodion and other scientists at the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), the varieties start fruiting in 18 months, and first harvest of about 300 kilos per hectare is usually recorded by 30th month, while the old varieties start fruiting at four years or more.
Tonnage yield per hectare
Professor Aikpokpodion told The Guardian that the cocoa yield per hectare is incremental with the age of the trees.
“It is not like maize or beans. With the new varieties that we have developed, in about two and a half years, you can begin to harvest about 300 kilogrammes per hectare.
“At about five to six years, the cocoa trees begin to bring economic yields, which hover around one metric tonnes,” Aikpokpodion said, “and when the trees are about eight years, the production per hectare shoots to over 1.5 tonnes. So, it is incremental.”
Economics of cocoa production
The current price of cocoa in the international market is $2337.36 (about N850,000). Having two hectares of cocoa farmland and getting three tonnes per annum mean sustainability and a reliable source of income. This income could be a seed capital for bigger agribusinesses.
“The most important thing to us,” the president of the Cocoa Association of Nigeria, Mr Sayina Riman, said, “is that cocoa will turn out again to be the major foreign exchange earner whether the crude oil price drops or rises. Cocoa should play the pivotal role in foreign exchange earnings.”
In a nutshell, he said, to do the cocoa production business, the first thing is to acquire the land and then prepare it.
It could be virgin or already cultivated land. If it is a virgin portion of land, some canopies have to be left by leaving some trees standing to protect the young cocoa trees.
Secondly, forming a cocoa seedling nursery is germane and this is the best time, between now and December. So by August 2019, one would get good seedlings.
The most reliable source of cocoa seedlings is the CRIN in Ibadan, according to Riman. CRIN has the TC1 series to TC8 series. It also has the budded materials. And this is the right time to get them at CRIN.
Farmers who are far from CRIN in Ibadan can approach the cocoa association and get seedlings for free.
The cocoa association said: “We raise 3 to 5 million seedlings annually and give them free to farmers. We raise them in major cocoa producing states in Nigeria and they include Ondo, Cross River, Ogun, Ekiti and Osun states.”
The association also said its “target is that farmers will produce at least one tonne per hectare with continuous training and extension services.”
In our 10-year cocoa action plan, it asks the Federal Government to provide extension agents. Without extension services, meeting the target might become a mirage.
“Our target is to produce 100,000 tonnes in addition to what we have now by next year. This production figure should be added every year, according to the agenda,” Riman said.