Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s biggest producer of cocoa. But cocoa yields in Africa, which range from 200-700 kg/hectare, are surprisingly low compared to South America (2.5 tons/hectare) and Asia (2.0 tons/hectare). Côte d’Ivoire’s first rank is the result of plantations expanding at the expense of forests. The increase of cocoa cultivation lands in Côte d'Ivoire continues, causing acute deforestation and negative climate impacts with rainfall reducing sharply. The reality is bleak and the future uncertain. If no solution is found, forests could totally disappear by 2034 and with them, the cocoa industry, a significant revenue generator and foreign currencies provider for the country.
According to Philippe Bastide, a cocoa expert who formerly worked for the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), one reason for the country’s low cocoa yields is that, unlike in South America, there is no homogeneity in Ivorian cocoa trees. Because of their diversity, only 25 to 30% of trees supply 80% of the cocoa production, whereas in South America, 85% of the trees supply 90% of the production. Cocoa plantations couldn’t be financially viable in South America with African yields as labor there is more expensive in South America.
Another cause, says Bastide, is the lack of good practices, including adequate maintenance and pest and disease control. Cultivation methods remain largely unchanged since the country’s independence in 1960. Farmers continue to use the full-sun method, exhausting soil nutrients and perpetuating low yields. In addition, the advanced age of the approximate 800,000 cocoa farmers prevents modernization and the will to adapt. Old cocoa plantations with old trees can’t produce much: thirty-year-old plantations require continuous attention and rejuvenation to keep the yields high. Without it, yields will continue to drop. More, poverty creates a vicious circle where farmers can’t buy inputs for these old plantations causing diminishing yields driving down farmers’ revenues.
The easiest solution to the soil depletion responsible for decreasing yields is to encroach upon forests. As weak productivity is the principal driver for shifting cultivation, we can assume that improving yields may reduce the current deforestation. Thus, considering that grafting is forbidden out of fear of swollen shoot disease, the simplest alternative to increasing cocoa yields would be intensification. This structural change means growing more cocoa on less land, using 100% productive, improved cocoa trees. An intensification scheme would mean multiplying the high-yield trees (bearing more than 10 fruits/year) by three to gain efficiency. In each plantation, keeping an inventory of productive trees to keep and less fruitful trees to cut may leave room to plant other trees or crops. This constant sorting process will increase yields (without augmenting the production because of the reduced number of cocoa trees) by allowing the additional space to be filled by timber, fruit trees, fuelwood and crop trees that can enhance the health of cocoa trees while also providing additional income for farmers. This agroforestry model is considered the most promising investment opportunity in terms of REDD+ benefits and feasibility. This strategy will help Côte d'Ivoire achieve several sustainable development goals (with priority to #1 no poverty, #7 affordable and clean energy, #8 decent work and economic growth, #12 responsible consumption and production, #13 climate action and #15 life on land) while also breaking with the deforestation trend in the country.
Cocoa has played a major role in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic development, but the Ivorian cocoa machine is about to seize up. A whole industry resistant to change must reinvent itself or die. A thunderstorm is forming on the horizon and the country needs to take urgent action to ensure the proper measures are implemented or prepare for an economic and environmental crisis.