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August 24, 2010

Ivory Coast Cocoa Harvest Strong Despite Disease

Heavy rains in Ivory Coast have brought another strong cocoa harvest.  But all that moisture is also spreading disease among trees that produce nearly 40 percent of the world's cocoa. 

Farmers in the coastal Sassandra region of Ivory Coast sort through piles of cocoa pods, separating healthy yellow pods from those rotting with black fungus.  Kouman N'guetia says more than half of the pods here are spoiled.

"When the pods are black inside the cocoa is too light," he said. "Farmers are asking themselves why they still get black pods even after such careful growing.  What do we do now to make the black pods disappear." Sometimes, he adds, he wonders if the rot is caused by the ground itself.

Agricultural officials say it is caused by too much humidity after weeks of heavy rains where cocoa trees planted too close together do not get enough sunlight to dry them out.

"When cocoa plants are too close together, that encourages diseases, as there is too much humidity," said Christian Kre is a Cocoa cooperative manager. "When there is too much humidity, the fungus makes the pods rot. There can be 100 pods on one cocoa tree but you can only harvest about 30 of them."

In addition to the black pod disease, high humidity is also spreading the viral swollen shoot disease that can ruin beans.  Pesticide seller Deki Adama Ouattara says farmers must move quickly to fight that disease.

"Normally from March to April, farmers use pesticides to deal with these parasites because once they appear on your field, it is too late, you cannot do anything," said Ouattara. "What can be done is called 'sanitizing the harvest' by cutting out all the affected pods because if they touch the other pods they will contaminate them too."

While Ivory Coast remains the world's largest cocoa producer, it is far less efficient than Indonesia or neighboring Ghana - in part because of disease, it part because its trees are far older and less productive.  Cooperative Manager Kre says cocoa fields have expanded more than five times during the past two decades, but output has only doubled.

"Ivory Coast has two million hectares of cleared forest under cultivation for cocoa,"  said Kre. "Each of those two million hectares produces about 600 kilograms of cocoa. That is below the productivity of Ghana, but he says Ivory Coast can do better if farmers adjust how they plant new trees."

Good rains mean this year's harvest will likely approach last year's 1.2 million tons of cocoa.  But keeping harvests consistent means both replacing older trees and reforming government price controls.

The future of Ivorian cocoa is a central theme in the country's ongoing presidential campaign, but real change has been held-up by this long-delayed vote, now scheduled for the end of October.