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A sweet tooth for organic cocoa

Cocoa beans are dried for export (WRENmedia)
Cocoa beans are dried for export

In March this year, to celebrate 50 years of independence from British rule, thousands of yellow, green and red flags with the black star flew proudly above the crowd gathered at Independence square, in Ghana's capital Accra. Since 1957, Ghana has maintained stability, progress, and peace, and built a reputation for itself as a major producer of cocoa - at one time becoming the largest cocoa producer in the world. Despite having lost its prime global position, Ghana has retained its international reputation for producing high quality cocoa, and the country's economy still relies heavily on the crop, which generates almost two thirds of Ghana's export revenue.

Of the 1.6 million people involved in the cocoa industry in Ghana, the majority are small-scale farmers. Most are unable to afford pesticides or fertilisers, yet despite this, relatively few Ghanaian cocoa farmers are certified as organic. That pattern seems to be found across West Africa; a recent report found that more than 75 per cent of Africa's certified organic farmland is in southern and eastern Africa. Organic certification in West Africa is less common, despite much of the land being farmed organically. In terms of global cocoa production, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) estimates that less than 0.5% of the global market share in cocoa is organically certified.

AgroEco, an NGO which promotes organic cocoa and fair trade farming, is keen to see this percentage increase, particularly in West Africa. Supported by a co-operative bank, Rabobank, and with technical assistance from the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG), AgroEco has facilitated the formation of COFA. The Cocoa Organic Farmers Association encourages farmers to certify their land as organic, and teaches them about the standards required for producing organic cocoa.

Mirids are a major cocoa pest. They will eventually destroy the whole tree (WRENmedia)
Mirids are a major cocoa pest. They will eventually destroy the whole tree

COFA has been running since 1998, and to date, the organisation has entirely replaced synthetic insecticide with natural alternatives among its members. The success of neem extract has been very promising, and has enabled farmers to significantly reduce pest damage. Dr Anthony Cudjoe, a CRIG entomologist who works alongside COFA farmers explains, "Our weather is conducive to pests. They multiply fast, especially mirids and capsids, which are major pests of cocoa. So when we were not using any pesticides, production went down drastically."

Organic inputs such as neem spray and pheromone traps, together with cultural practices such as pruning and application of poultry manure are advocated to ensure that farmers practise a holistic approach. However, both neem seeds and pheromones deteriorate with time. For example, the active ingredient in neem extract - Azadirachtin - breaks down when exposed to sunlight but can last for up to a year if kept in the shade.

Production of organic cocoa provides a premium of between 10 and 40 per cent over non-organic cocoa. "It is true that by practising organic farming we experience reductions in yield." says Francis Acquah, a member of COFA. "Yet, if we maintain good standards on our farms and, with the premium we earn, we find that we don't lose much."

Besides the benefit of the premium prices received for his cocoa, Acquah states several other reasons why his farm is now organic. "Biological pesticides are not harmful to human health. If you use synthetic chemicals, they pollute the rivers and streams and it is not good for the environment," he points out. He adds that unlike synthetic chemicals, botanical pesticides do not kill beneficial insects, which keep pests at bay.

Café culture and the western sweet tooth

With the explosion of café culture, consumers in Europe and America are becoming more aware of the ethical and environmental issues surrounding the production of food and, as a result, organic and fair trade, which are often linked, have increased in popularity. But becoming - and staying - organic is not an easy option. With popularity comes competition and standards, and currently the only standards available have been developed outside Africa.

Stringent standards are applied when cocoa is exported. credit (WRENmedia)
Stringent standards are applied when cocoa is exported. credit

Some argue that stringent foreign standards can hinder the development of organic production for small-scale farmers, especially as achieving organic certification is costly. Organisations such as COFA, however, train local farmers to meet the high standards that exporters require. Alfred Aongoyo, a field officer, encourages farmers to register with COFA, and explains that after converting to organic farming for three years, they too can receive a premium for their produce. "Becoming organically certified is not all that difficult, but it needs a lot of care," he says - for instance better management of disease, to get high quality beans.

COFA supplies cocoa to the government's Ghana Cocoa Board, which sells the beans to international buyers. Despite the difficulties involved in growing organic cocoa, Cudjoe is optimistic. "The market is so promising. In fact, people are asking for thousands of tons that cannot be produced now," he muses.

At present, COFA has 300 members, and Aongoyo reports that more farmers are eager to join. Whether they do or not, there is one thing for sure. The market is there and - according to the International Cocoa Organization - it's growing.

Date published: May 2007


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