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Opinions of Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Columnist: Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

Improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers

Ohene Boafo runs his hands through the brown cocoa beans spread across the man-made wooden drying structure at his home in Atta Ne Atta in the West Akim Municipal District of the Eastern Region.

“I harvested them a few days ago from my cocoa farm. I am drying them so I can sell,” he says.

Mr Boafo has been a cocoa farmer since he was a youth but says his vocation has not brought him so much satisfaction until recently.

“First, my trees took longer to bear fruits and they were sometimes attacked by pests so I could only break even but now my cocoa trees bear good fruits because of the good farming practices and seedlings I plant,” he explains.

His cocoa trees have been bearing good fruits and the quantity he collects has also increased. Initially, he was able to harvest two bags from a hectare of land, but as a result of the hybrid cocoa seedlings and the good agricultural practices he adopted through Cocoa Life Programme, spearheaded by Mondelez International, a multinational confectionary, food and beverage company, his yields have improved to eight cocoa bags per hectare.

“Cocoa Life has given us a lot of education through their cocoa extension agents. We were taught how to maintain our farms well, in terms of weeding, pruning, spraying and adopting good agricultural practices and, in fact, I listen to the advice and my yield has increased,” he reveals.

Mr Boafo benefits from free improve hybrid cocoa seedlings from the Cocoa Life Programme, which operates in 447 communities across the cocoa growing districts of the country.

The seedling, nursed by Tree Global, an international nursery service which provides high-performance seedlings to large scale projects focused on agriculture, has a maturity period of 18 months as against the hybrid Tetteh Quarshie seedlings which has over eight years maturity period.

“Sometimes, when we don’t have enough rains the yield decreases but the Coca Life seedlings can survive for some months without rainfall. Cocoa Life buys the seedlings and supplies them to us without any cost,” he asserts.

Improved Seedlings

As part of the Cocoa Life Programme, Tree Global has been contracted to produce quality and innovative seedlings for farmers in the Cocoa Life communities to ensure high yields at their central nursery station in Tafo, Eastern Region.

Explaining how the seedlings are produced, Nursery Manager & Head of Plant Science at Tree Global, Alberto Britez, says the hybrid Tetteh Quarshie cocoa seedlings produced from the Seed Production Division (SPD) of the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) are nursed in plastic pots designed to protect the tap root of the seedlings, instead of the usual polyethene to boost production.

“We use the potting soil (media) to nurse the seedling under our integrated place management (IPM) system – good fertilizer programme, irrigation and control of disease – which makes them survive better during bad conditions and from our trials in the fields, we are having very good results with more than 90 percent survival rate during the first year,” he explains.

“When you start from the seed with good care from the beginning, that seed is going to perform well,” Britez adds.

The seedlings, after three months of nursery, are then transported in a specially designed tray containing 36 plastic pots to the farmers during the cocoa planting season. The special transportation and handling of the seedlings from the central nursery centre to the farms is to ensure the full benefit of the roots of the seedlings.

“When the farmers get the seedling, we make sure they plant quickly and return the container. But we make sure they are ready to receive the seedling before we transport them,” Agbeko Ashiagbor, assistant nursery manager further explains.

The distribution of the seedling to farmers under the Cocoa Life Programme is done in consultation with COCOBOD and the Beneficiary Farmers’ Unions to agree on how many seedlings go to which district and the quantity to be given to the farmers.

Mr Ashiagbor states that the company distributed 500,000 seedlings to cocoa farmers in seven cocoa growing districts in the Eastern, Brong Ahafo, Western Region and Ashanti Regions during the last cocoa growing season.

“This season, we have given out 565,000 seedlings to farmers in four regions of the country, including Fanteakwa District, West Akim District, New Juabeng District and Suhum District in the Eastern Region, in Ashanti we supplied Amansea West District, in Brong-Ahafo we supplied Asunafo North District and in Western we supplied Wasa East District,” Mr Ashaigbor opines.

Nursery Expansion

The demand of the farmers far out stream the supply calling for increased production, for example, the farmers in Asunafo North Municipality of the Brong-Ahafo Region requested for two million seedlings from Tree Global, but the company could supply the quantities agreed by the partners.

Mr Ashiagbor points out that the nursery can be expanded if government supports the project with funds to meet the growing demand of the farmers.

“Current capacity is about 800,000 to one million seedling, but we can produce up to 1.5 million seedlings. We have an 11 acres land but we are operating within five acre so we have the capacity to produce the demand of the farmers,” he adds.

The Country Lead of Mondelez International Cocoa Life (MICL), Yaa Peprah Amekudzi, says since the project began about 10 years ago, cocoa farmers in some districts of the country had benefited from millions of hybrid seedlings.

She says although the company is doing a lot to improve cocoa production in the country, more needs to be done to enable Ghana to attain its target of exporting one million metric tons of cocoa beans.

According to Mrs Amekudzi, Ghana needs to establish, at least, five Tree Global subsidiaries in major parts of the country where cocoa is grown.

“We cannot do this alone and so we may need the support of the government to enable more farmers to get access to improved hybrid cocoa seedlings. It is due to budget because we pay $1 per a seedling and we are hoping that as the farmers begin to talk about the trees themselves government will show interest in this as well because the yield is earlier and they survive under difficult conditions,” ,” she adds.

She says the programme has one sole aim, and it is to make sure Ghana’s cocoa is as high quality as Ghana government wants it to be, “so it is like helping the farmers, country and ourselves.”

Alternative Livelihoods

Cocoa Life communities also have the opportunity of benefitting from different livelihood programmes aimed at not only ensuring the cocoa trees yield the best of fruits so they can have value for their money, but also sustaining them outside the cocoa season.

Working with partners, including World Vision, ABUNTU, OLAM and Child’s Right International, Mondelez supports thriving cocoa communities to build lasting change in the lives of cocoa farmers.

“We are not only giving free hybrid cocoa seedlings but we are also implementing a number of programmes to improve the well-being of cocoa farmers, especially the women. Cocoa does not give monthly income so we have to initiate alternative means of livelihoods for farmers,” Mrs Amekudzi says.

Through the project, 16,000 bicycles and 15,000 solar lamps have been given out to farmers to assist their children to commute to school and learn at night. Also, about 600 wells have been dug for communities without a source of potable drinking water.

Co-operative unions and groups have also been established to assist farmers financially, while women are taken through skills training in dressmaking, bakery, soap making among others.

Mr Boafo is the president of the West Akim Farmer Co-operative and Marketing Union and attests to the fact that the union has benefitted immensely from the Cocoa Life project.

“They gave us a calendar that tells us what we need to do every month from nursery to harvesting so we get the best cocoa beans. We also get free spraying machines and farm boots so we do not have to wait for the mass cocoa spraying exercise before we spray our farms,” he adds.

In the Ningo Nankese cocoa growing community, women cocoa farmers have received skills development in bakery under the alternative livelihood programme.

The Peace & Unity Pastries Group, as the cooperative is called, has so far trained 16 women in the community in bread and pastries making.

“It takes four months for the women to learn the skills organised free-of-charge. Some people from other places come and buy our bread and pie,” Vida Martey, head of the co-operative says.

She says the introduction of the alternative livelihood programme has not only boosted the confidence of women but also empowered them financially.