How Cocoa Agroforestry Systems Can Help Farmers in West Africa

Author Hervé D. Bisseleua

Director of Agricultural Productivity & Chief Party ACI II
World Cocoa Foundation

Chocolate is one of the most universal treats in the world. But could your sweet tooth be contributing to the destruction of plants and animal biodiversity? Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is traditionally grown in areas with dense and diverse canopies of shade trees, home to an abundant variety of plants and animals. The industry is strongly dependent on small-scale agriculture, but also highly vulnerable to pest and disease outbreaks and climate change. These production challenges, combined with increasing global demand for chocolate, have increased the economic and social pressure to achieve higher yields more quickly.

The path to higher yields includes better farming practices, favorable policies and regulations, and a healthy natural environment. Historically, higher yields have been achieved through a constant expansion of areas planted with cocoa combined with a reduction of shade trees and the increased use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer. A system that is often referred to as full sun cocoa production. But these techniques lead to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and poor ecosystem properties that include nutrient flow, carbon sequestration, soil fertility health, pollination, and natural pest and disease regulation. Higher yields in the short term are also not sustainable over the long term. The experience in Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, and elsewhere shows that the promotion of high-yielding hybrid cocoa varieties under direct full sun have contributed to more frequent outbreaks of pests and diseases. Recent predictions indicate that higher future temperatures will make some areas, currently growing cocoa, no longer suitable. But shade management could be used to address this.

Agroforestry, referring here to planting or managing the regeneration of companion trees with cocoa, can make important contributions to strengthening and sustaining cocoa productivity. This is because the benefits of agroforestry are enormous. They range from improving soil health, diversifying farmer income, securing household food and nutrition needs and reducing pest and disease outbreaks.

A dynamic cocoa growing management system that uses various combinations of other plant species, including food crops, food trees (fruits, nuts, tree-vegetables and oils), and medicinal plant as well as timber trees in association with cocoa, offers benefits for smallholder farmers. Such options can empower farmer communities and lead to prosperous farmers and a healthy planet.

Since the launch of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, nearly two years ago, the issue of deforestation is attracting a lot of interest from the private sector. This is because the long-term viability of worldwide cocoa supply is largely dependent on a conserved environment. This is a growing concern among chocolate consumers. Thus, the development of sustainable production systems with a landscape approach is a priority for the cocoa sector.

Already, there’s strong commitment to optimize the farmer and the chocolate industry business case for cocoa agroforestry systems. Certification agencies (Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, Fairtrade), multilateral donors (World Bank) and international organizations such as the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques, the World Agroforestry Centre, and the World Cocoa Foundation are keen to invest in the preservation of ecosystem services and the development of sustainable production systems.

While Africa has had a long history of shade-grown cocoa production, recent decades have seen many farmers transitioning towards intensive farming in full sun, which allows for easier mechanization. But crops grown in full sun are generally also of lower quality and more susceptible to pest outbreaks. In contrast, shade-grown cocoa benefits both the farmers and biodiversity: a study from Cameroon and Ghana found that shade cocoa farms had over double the number of plant and animal species such as birds, ant termites and pollinators in comparison with nearby forest sites. Shade farming could also be a strategy for farmers trying to cope with increasing temperatures due to climate change. Considering the large global markets for cocoa, reverting to traditional growing methods such as agroforestry would have a large positive impact on the environment simply due to the economy of scale. This biodiversity-friendly practice would enable farmers across West Africa to receive higher prices for their cocoa and recover a large portion of the land lost to deforestation and land degradation each year without the need for more land conversion.