YAOUNDE - The large drop in global cocoa prices has hurt African farmers, leading some to abandon their plantations. In Cameroon, however, cocoa producers are mapping out ways to encourage more local processing.
At Nkog-Ekogo in the center region of Cameroon, a cocoa post-harvest processing and treatment center is inaugurated. Farmer Petronella Ndukong said that will help farmers dry and conserve their produce while waiting for prices to increase.
"[It] is going to be a wonderful thing for the producers," Ndukong said. "They will start learning how to transform it."
The world's fifth-largest cocoa producer, Cameroon's average cocoa production was 230,000 tons in 2015. That increased to 260,000 tons last year when demand rose in the world market.
The International Cocoa and Coffee Organization reports that in 2015 there was a boom with growing demand, particularly in the new markets of China and India. This pushed farmers to produce a surplus of 400,000 tons of cocoa against the four-million-ton annual supply. In 2016 and 2017, there has been another surplus of about 400,000 tons.
Yet, local processing in Africa is only 25 percent of production, so the continent relies on developed countries for processing.
Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, Cameroon's trade minister, said this year has been the worst in the last five as the farm gate price per kilogram officially dropped to $1, from $3 three years ago. That is pushing farmers to abandon their farms.
Atangana said the main challenge is that financial and social pressure is forcing some farmers to harvest cocoa that is not ready, and drying it under unhealthy conditions. The result, he said, is that prices will continue to be drastically reduced because the cocoa is of very poor quality.
And there are indications production will plummet.
Ambe Funui, president of a cocoa producers association in the Lekie, center region of Cameroon, said environmental factors are harming production.
"I pray that the production should not reduce this year because we have noticed that there is very timid bearing of cocoa, there is late bearing and then it seems as if there is persistent black spots despite the fact that farmers are applying the insecticides and fungicides," Funui said.
During the Yaounde meeting to encourage African countries to process cocoa, Daniel Mercier of the French Confederations of Chocolate Makers and Confectioners said it will be dangerous for Africa's economy if cocoa production is abandoned because of low prices. He advises that production should not be dropped and the quality of the crop should be controlled by halting early harvests.
It is a shame, he said, that while developed countries process cocoa and make much profit from its sale, producing countries remain very poor. The best thing would be for cocoa-producing countries to process their cocoa to highly consumable food items like chocolate, he added.
Seventy percent of the world's cocoa comes from west and central Africa. Producers have suggested that the issue of cocoa price decline should be included in the agenda of the Africa-EU summit to be held later this month in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which, together with Ghana, contributes 60 percent of the cocoa sold in the world.