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Careers in Cocoa takes a look at some of the different backgrounds of those who make up the World Cocoa Foundation. From the work they do, to the paths they took to get where they are today, learn about our team, and how they are using their skills and experiences to further the WCF mission. This is the fourth piece in a five-part series.
While deforestation and climate change are two main concerns that some cocoa farmers share, another one on their minds is pests and disease. That’s where Virginie Mfegue, a Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Program Manager at WCF, comes in.
“My background is basically understanding plant pathogen interactions in a cocoa farm,” said Virginie. “My work at WCF consists of providing solutions to deal with the cocoa swollen shoot virus disease, usually called CSSV disease.”
Cocoa swollen shoot virus disease is a plant pathogenic virus that primarily infects cocoa trees. It decreases yields within the first year of infection, and usually kills the tree within a few years. The virus can have a devastating impact on the lives of cocoa trees, thus affecting farmers, and it’s people such as Virginie who are working to provide answers about how to combat this virus.
Already, Virginie has made strides in helping the people of West Africa come closer to identifying a solution to CSSV.
“From multiple collaborations with research teams all over the world, we now have rapid diagnostic tools, which were identified as one of the top priorities in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana,” said Virginie. “Another important result of my program is that the industry is setting up a regional CSSV class laboratory.”
“The detection tool will be employed for the use of scientists to monitor CSSV infected farms in West Africa. The program is also supporting countries’ breeding programs to develop tolerant cocoa varieties, as one important way to control this disease.”
Virginie’s global education has given her a wealth of knowledge that allows her to not only help identify solutions to this problem, but also work with different groups from a variety of regions and countries. This ability to communicate with people from different backgrounds and cultures has helped her greatly in her career.
“After I graduated in Agronomy, I worked four years as a junior cocoa scientist in Cameroon. Then I started a series of internships in France to specialize in molecular biology,” said Virginie. “That brought me to apply for a Borlaug Fellowship—a program that used to be run by WCF for young African scientists.”
The Borlaug grant allowed Virginie to draft a PhD subject in the US, at North Carolina State University. From there, she obtained her PhD degree in France on plant-pathogen interactions in cocoa, focusing on molecular epidemiology.
In 2015, Virginie was recruited at WCF to run a regional CSSV program in West Africa, a program which she still leads today. The global education she received before this position has allowed her to thrive greatly in her current role.
“I have been fortunate to be able to travel and study in several countries in Africa, Europe, the United States, South America, and Israel since I was 17,” said Virginie. “It helps me a lot in my daily work, because I have a fairly good understanding of different cultures, of how scientists work in several countries, because we do not all have the same priorities.”
Virginie went on to provide an example of such a cultural difference.
“As an African working with cocoa farmers, I know what their priorities are,” said Virginie. “In Europe, the needs of my fellow scientists are a little different. So I am rooted in these different realities and I know a little about the different needs of those with whom I work with. I try to use all the experience I have had in my journey on several continents to develop relevant collaborations.”
Like many things, the spread of CSSV is worsened by the effects of climate change, and minimizing the impact of climate change is another part of the work that Virginie conducts.
“This is something quite concerning, and for those who like chocolate, it can be frightening. Many people are asking themselves, ‘Will we still have cocoa in 10 years? 20 years?’” said Virginie. “But this concern is only valid if we do nothing. We are taking into account in our work that two to three years ago, a study showed the basis of a model that indicated the area suitable for growing cocoa could decrease significantly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast by 2050.”
“Heat and drought have a direct impact on factors such as pests and diseases,” continued Virginie. “Increased outbreaks of CSSV these last few years is one example. The risk of worsening already existing pandemics or the emergence of new pests and diseases is real, and even observed in cocoa in recent years. We are prepared through our scientific work.”
Pests and disease control are valuable pillars of sustainable cocoa. The future of cocoa depends on people like Virginie, who have the knowledge and passion required to get the job done. There is hope that the future is bright for finding sustainable methods of cocoa farming that prevent disease and increase yield.
“I think what really makes me love what I do at WCF is this certainty of making a modest contribution to solving the problems faced by cocoa farmers,” said Virginie. “Our programs and vision at WCF are aimed at improving the livelihoods of farmers and farmers’ communities, and it’s something I take very seriously.”