Climbing to Success: Cocoa Livelihoods and Good Agricultural Practices

Author Aaron Mead-Long

Senior Programs Associate
World Cocoa Foundation

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Farmers from the Bendeghe Afi community in Cross River State, Nigeria, discovered this when they couldn’t figure out how to prune their exceedingly tall cocoa trees. One farmer took matters into his own hands and decided it was time to get creative to compensate for the fact that certain work tools were not readily accessible. Using local materials, he built a ladder to easily climb the tallest trees and get rid of excessive branches. Other farmers followed in his footsteps and soon everyone was using the ladder.

The Bankpo farmers’ low tech solution addressed a tricky problem in cocoa farming. How do you ensure that the right amount of sunlight makes it through the upper canopy to stimulate pod germination and prevent mold? Shade is beneficial to cocoa trees, but too little sunlight can also cause problems. For instance, it can contribute to the spread of diseases such as Black Pod or Witches Broom. When trees get sick, this can mean losses in much needed income for farmers and their families who have to throw away moldy pods at harvest.

On each of my visits to West Africa, I’ve walked through at least one farm where the cocoa trees blocked almost all sunlight from reaching the ground. The reason for this is not surprising – cocoa tree pruning requires training, experience, and access to tools and labor. It is not easy for farmers to know the balance of shade and light that’s right for their farms, and to be able to prune regularly.

Pruning has a positive effect on farmers’ lives. Another Nigerian cocoa farmer, Chief Samuel Akande, attended the farmers’ field school in Oladapo, Ondo State. He began to spend less on agrochemicals and earn more money after adopting pruning. “Due to pruning, I now get eight bags of cocoa from the same land where I had been getting five bags”, he says.

The Cocoa Livelihoods Program (CLP), a ten-year effort of the cocoa industry (2009-2019), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation, supported trainings for farmers in West Africa on good agricultural practices for cocoa like pruning.

At the end of the program in 2019, all companies involved had achieved their targets for pruning adoption in Ghana and Nigeria. But that still meant that 55% of Ivorian farmers, 25% of Ghanaian farmers, and 18% of Nigerian farmers did not prune their trees.

The main obstacles to the adoption of pruning are access to the right tools and/or help on farm. This is especially true for elderly and women farmers. Some CLP companies were able to help with groups of semi-skilled laborers called pruning gangs to provide pruning as a service, and by getting farmers mechanical or handheld pruners.

Pruning gangs provide benefits beyond just helping farmers prune their farms. They offer jobs to young adults in West Africa, where unemployment can reach above 13%. Paradoxically, labor is also extremely costly in the region, so farmers, especially widowed and elderly farmers, benefitted from the low-cost farm labor that CLP-sponsored pruning gangs provided.

Overall, CLP showed that, by aggregating company demand for agricultural inputs and services for farmers in collaboration with origin government agencies, companies can deliver essential inputs to farmers in need.

Read more CLP lessons learned here (Executive Summary or Full Report).