Oba Dokun Thompson is the Oloni of Eti-Oni and Chairman, Eti-Oni Development Group. He is an expert in the cocoa and chocolate industry in Nigeria and outside the shores of the country. In this interview with Seyi Taiwo-Oguntuase, he speaks on the effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on the cocoa and chocolate industry. Excerpts:
What do you think the government can do to revive the once thriving cocoa farming in the country?
A lot is already being done. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has created several financial products to support and boost production output through the commercial banks.
Nigerian Export-Import Bank (NEXIM) has also provided a lot of support in the area of export and working in the area of ensuring that the processing capacity could be fully utilised.
We, on our part, are working on the area of awareness that would create the culture of consumption, as that is what would give confidence to the farmers that they would find buyers for their produce if they work on producing more.
It also encourages partnerships between the farmers and chocolate farmers that would lead to the farmers understanding the needs of a chocolate maker to produce the best quality beans possible.
Today, we have a number of artisan chocolate makers, and the government agencies need to recognise the difference between an industrial process and artisan manufacturing and ease the manner in which they create obstacles and barriers for these Small and Medium Enterprise (SMEs) in being able to label their products to be accepted on shop shelves in the country.
In the UK, all permits are local; why can’t we do the same here? Also, there is no such thing as National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) creating a problem for anyone to get their products into the market.
I think that is where the government is failing, and no economy will thrive if the SMEs are being choked with heavy regulations.
Nigeria is the 4th largest cocoa producing country in the world, yet we have fewer chocolate and beverage companies in the country. What could have accounted for this?
As I said we do not have a culture of cocoa consumption. To us, raw cocoa bean is a finished product and we export perhaps 90 per cent of our output as that.
Meanwhile, the ratio of the value of raw cocoa beans to a finished product is about 1: 20 or in some cases a lot more.
There are several ways of consuming cocoa not just as a confectionery, beverage or as a cosmetic product. It can also be used in the pharmaceutical industries. There is education, research, tourism, entertainment and merchandising that can all be spin-offs from it.
With the advent of AfCFTA, a market size of 1.3 billion people has been created, and that is going to continue to grow based on the projected population of Nigeria and African nations.
So, we are at a time when opportunities are going to be opening up and we need to take advantage of this. We will need to be highly creative and innovative, creating our own different products that will be embraced by the people.
Yes, finance, standardisation, among others are challenges, but with focus and determination, the story will definitely change. We just have to continue to say it so that it would resonate with the people for clearer and better understanding.
You are advocating better conditions for women in the cocoa industry. What exactly are you doing for women?
When we say women in cocoa, we are not just talking about Eti-Oni but generally in cocoa producing regions across the globe.
Culturally, we as a people have never undermined or discriminated against women and to a great extent have equal access. But there are certain areas women are definitely stronger than men.
The traditional structure has always recognised the roles of internal affairs, commerce, trade and even finance as customary to women, and the natural thing is to help in projecting this better than it is done today.
Because we could not hold the Cocoa Festival in 2020 due to COVID-19, we had an empowerment programme which was also supported by Ajike People Support Centre whose founder is the First Lady of Kwara State, Her Excellency Ambassador (Dr.) Mrs. Olufolake Abdulrazaq.
The idea was to provide tools and equipment for some farmers, and most of the beneficiaries were women who were provided with hairdressing equipment, sewing machines, grinders, popcorn making machine, makeup artist kits, and so on to supplement their earning from cocoa farming and trade and also give them an opportunity to earn money all-round the year.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Nigeria and other cocoa planting nations in Africa?
The past one year has been challenging and the main problem had to do with the ability to fulfill supply contracts.
The supply chain was seriously affected because of lockdowns across the globe for movement of produce from farms to warehouses and subsequently for export. Now that this pandemic has extended into 2021, the contracts are also on shaky grounds.
In Nigeria, for instance, we have issues of erratic dollar exchange rates, security challenges, and uninspired buyers, among others.
In 2016, Eti-Oni celebrated 120 years of cocoa production. The vision then was to transform Eti-Oni into a fully developed town with functional cocoa processing plants for premium chocolate products and a tourist destination for its environs. How far have you gone with this?
The overall vision of the Cocoa Renaissance Initiative, which we began in 2014 and opened to the world in 2016 as it relates to Eti-Oni, is very much on track.
It is a 20-year development plan with short, medium and long term goals to transform Eti-Oni into a sustainable model smart town.
Part of the short term goal was to create the awareness and understanding of the origin and traditions of cocoa as we work towards creating the cocoa culture that will bridge the gap between production and consumption in a manner that we as a people can begin to appreciate and work on value addition of our agricultural produce to generate wealth to transform our communities.
The idea behind cocoa processing for us is to build the economic model that will fund all our developmental initiatives to achieve sustainability.
As you know, tourism can also be a byproduct of cocoa production and we have done a lot in that area with the annual Cocoa Festival where we have thousands of visitors come to Eti-Oni to celebrate with us, learn about cocoa and its derivatives as well as enjoy the beauty of our serene and very green environment.
It is a continuous process and a journey that will go on even after the initial 20 years.
How competitive is Eti-Oni cocoa in the world market?
The interesting thing about cocoa as it is currently classified is that it is based on countries and not the actual region of origin.
The Premium Chocolate industry which is relatively new, less than 15 years old, and still evolving, is what is changing the narrative and putting value to cocoa origins based on the unique and diverse flavours from varying regions.
There are also considerations of transparency, traceability and ethical issues in the production and supply chain.
In all of these, Eti-Oni Cocoa is doing very well and we continue to let people around the world know the value of our cocoa which has floral and nutty notes with a hint of warm spice and definitely a delight to have.
What are the challenges the farmers in the town are facing?
There are several challenges around lack of social and physical infrastructure which are also discouraging to the next generation of farmers.
But over the years, what we started in 2014 is to return self-worth and dignity to the farmers, and we are looking at showing them how to do things differently with a new mindset.
The past one year has also been a great challenge all over the world with COVID-19.
In addition, we had extended periods of rainfall which created swollen shoot disease and reduced the normal production output considerably.
Now that the main crop harvest is over, the second wave of COVID-19 has kicked in with a new variant, and the lockdown in Europe is affecting the supply chain which is putting pressure on the exporters and farmers are needing to sell with minimal offers so they are not left with the cocoa because the light crop season is in another two months to prevent a glut in the industry.