Seven research scientists, from Africa, Asia and Latin America, will come to the United States next year to study cocoa production. They were chosen by the Washington-based World Cocoa Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two- to three-month fellowships.
The effort is part of the Global Cocoa Initiative of the WCF and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship program.
The scientists are from Costa Rica, Ghana, Vietnam, the Philippines and three from Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans.
While in the United States, they’ll work with a mentor at research labs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Florida or Maryland, or with universities. In the past, they have included the state universities of Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, as well as Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Virginia Sopyla, a program manager with the World Cocoa Foundation earlier in Washington, said "[Fellows] will work with a mentor on developing technical research skills, and they will also complete a tour the U.S. side of the cocoa supply chain. So, they can learn about how cocoa is brought into the U.S., how it’s stored and warehoused, processed and manufactured into chocolate products."
"Then six months to one year after the completion of the fellowship, the fellow’s mentor has the opportunity to visit him or her at the home [research] institution in the producing country for a follow-up visit of up to one to two weeks."
During their stay in the United States, the fellows will conduct research on issues affecting the growth and production of cocoa, including crop diseases and insect pests.
The African researcgers are expected to study cocoa swollen shoot virus, a disease common to West Africa. It’s transmitted by the mealybug and can kill cocoa trees within three years.
They are also expected to study black pod rot, a fungus found in much of the world’s cocoa producing regions.
Fellows from Asia will look at Helopeltis, or mirids, an insect pest affecting cocoa pods and young shoots in Vietnam. They’ll also look at the management and the intercropping of cocoa and coconut in the Philippines.
Sopyla said a number of past fellows have continued their work with US mentors long after the end of their fellowships.
"We had a fellow from Nigeria who was studying a nematode pest," she explained. "These are very small worms that feed on the roots of the cocoa seedling roots. With his mentor he was able to identify the species of nematode that was affecting their plants and then was able to conduct some studies on using poultry manure [in compost] to control the [hatching of nematode eggs]. He conducted those studies here in the lab in the U.S. and then when he returned to Nigeria he continued this work and is now able to share that learning with farmers."
World Cocoa Foundation officials add that getting the word out to farmers is an important part of the organization’s work.
An integral part of the effort is using new and affordable technology.
One program, called Cocoa Link, allows farmers to share ideas and ask questions using cell phone text messaging.
Another, called Digital Green, teaches farmers to film or videotape training sessions, which can then be shared with fellow farmers.
Bill Guyton, the president of the WCF, said "the farmers] show the videos later on these very small devices that can be used at night and on the walls of homes to show and reinforce some of what they’ve learned during farmer training."
"The technology was adapted first in India and is being pilot tested through the WCF Cocoa Livelihoods Program [a collaborative effort with the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation targeting 200,000 households in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire,
It’s been used on other crops before but this is the first time we’ve tried using this technology in the cocoa sector…so we’re very excited about what it’s going to deliver."
The World Cocoa Foundation represents over 100 chocolate companies and others in the supply chain working to support sustainable cocoa production. Guyton says the WCF’s work in farmer outreach is showing promising results and is an important part of the effort to improve farm productivity – and incomes.