Soil Management: A Natural and Balanced Approach for Cocoa

Author Indranil Ghosh

Sustainability Lead
KKO International

A vital part of cocoa sustainability that is sometimes overlooked is soil management. Soil’s continued ability to stay fertile is inherent to the success of any farm. I would like to share some of the lessons that we’ve learned at KKO International, where failures and successes working on our Bocanda farm, located in the N’Zi Comoe region of Côte d’Ivoire, allowed us to gradually develop a natural and balanced approach to soil management. Bocanda features 800,000 drip-irrigated cocoa trees and integrated biodiversity with more than 300,000 coffee, teak, moringa and neem trees.

The initial experience

While working with pedologists (scientists who study soils) and agronomists, we were initially advised to adopt a fertigation system. Fertigation is the injection of fertilizers, used for soil amendments, water amendments, and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system. As a modern cocoa farm, we were interested in the idea of the use of technology and convinced by its popularity in the agriculture space. Used with unwavering efficiency in a variety of conditions, fertigation is highly accurate and economic. However, as often is the case in remote Africa, infrastructural issues and lack of trained labor did not allow for the process’s success. Installation and efficient operation of the system requires a know-how that was impossible to find within a sector where even irrigation is still sparingly used. After a year of application, we noticed an uneven distribution of dosage of soluble fertilizers. Inhouse pedologists also noticed, given the granular nature of the soil, the inability to maintain the nutrients at root level.

The problem often contains the solution

With thinking caps back on, but with no similar cocoa project in Africa to learn from, we took a chance on biofertilizers and their organic peers. It must be underlined that the two are not the same: organic fertilizers are made in-house from animal or green manure whereas biofertilizers are made by specialized companies and contain microbial inoculants, living organisms with traces of bacteria, algae and fungi alone or in combination.

We quickly pinpointed some of the inherent advantages of using biofertilizers and organic fertilizers:

  • Low-tech approach and easy to procure in Africa.
  • Tends to be cheaper given the nature of raw additives used.
  • Low carbon footprint (manufactured locally compared to imported synthetic counterparts).
  • Ability to infuse live microorganisms into the ecosystem, notably bacteria, algae and fungi.
  • Improved soil structure with increased ability to absorb and retain moisture and nutrients.
  • Provides a source of revenue for local communities who supply some of the raw materials.

Effect on use of herbicides, pesticides and on overall agro-strategy

Our agricultural strategy is now geared to promote the use of bio and organic fertilizers. We recover for this purpose from a variety of sources: onsite deadwood, wood waste from local sawing mills, chicken waste from nearby poultry farms, and harvested cocoa pods.

Photo by KKO International
Photo by KKO International

In parallel, there has been a move towards organic weed management methods. We have been reducing our dependence on synthetic herbicides by applying wood chippings, which act as deterrents, at the root of the cocoa trees. Finally, our biodiversity protocol also reflects our convictions by including the planting of neem trees on a large scale. These trees help to reduce the usage of pesticides, by incapacitating or neutralizing pests via cumulative behavioral, physiological, and cytological effects.


As a company, we are eternal pragmatists, committed to success. I believe in the adoption of efficient and tested methods that, whilst fulfilling their stated purpose, respect the delicate natural balance that surrounds us. The approach to using bio and organic fertilizers will surely evolve overtime and adopt newer advancements, but the underlying aim will be to manage soil fertility using what is readily available in nature.