Will Ghana’s cocoa industry survive the climate onslaught?

Cocoa in Ghana
Cocoa in Ghana

By Kofi Adu Domfeh

Cocoa, the second largest foreign exchange earner for Ghana, is indeed the cash-cow of the Ghanaian economy.

But the cocoa industry, a major driver to deforestation, is reeling under the threat of climate change.

Increasing production demands expansion of area under cultivation, with the resultant effect of converting forests to farming systems which leads to decline in carbon stocks.

To sustain production, there is the call for the country to explore climate-smart cocoa production practices.

ClimateReporter, Kofi Adu Domfeh takes a look at what Ghana is doing to ensure the cocoa economy and local livelihoods are sustained.

The Paradox of Cocoa Production

A drive through Ghana’s cocoa belts, especially during the dry season, reveals a sorry sight of stretches of cocoa withering from the top as though fire had gone through the top part of farms.

Under good weather and improved farming practices, Ghana unprecedentedly produced one million metric tons of cocoa in the 2010/2011 crop year.

But production has since declined, currently hovering around 850,000 tons.

Temperature plays a critical role in Ghana’s cocoa production – whiles climate change affects agriculture, agriculture also affects climate change.

Agroforestry research scientist, Dr. Luke Anglaaere, describes cocoa production as a paradox to Ghana’s forest depletion and restoration.

“Cocoa is the crop that has led to the destruction of Ghana’s forest and it is the only crop within Ghana’s agricultural system that has the potential to help restore the forest, to bring back the forest,” he said.

The Climate Threat to the Prized Bean

Enjoyed by sweet-toothed consumers the world-over, more than half of the world’s chocolate comes from the cocoa plantations of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers supply lucrative fair-trade markets in developed countries.

But the climate threat could transform the cherished chocolate bar into a luxury few can afford.

Ghana, at the turn of the century, had 8.2million hectors of forest reserves.

The policy in forest reservation at the time was to reserve a small portion to create a good micro-climate to support cocoa production and other agricultural activities.

“The reduction in forest, alarming though it may seem, was more or less intentional,” noted Kwabena Nketia of Tropenbos International Ghana. “But with time government realized that was not the best of policies; that is allowing the areas outside the reserves to be converted fully to agriculture”.

Most ecological zones in Ghana are experiencing gradual increase in temperature, longer dry season and reduction of annual rainfall.

Mr. Nketia has observed the dwindling fortunes of cocoa production in some northern parts of the country “because the microclimate there does not support cocoa growing; so if we are not careful with the way we manage our forest resources, as we lose our forest, the environment gets drier and drier and cocoa will no longer be able to survive”.

Seven years ago, climate scientists at the Colombia-based International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, predicted that the expected increasing temperatures will lead to massive declines in cocoa production in Ghana and other cocoa-growing areas in West Africa by 2030.

Their report also revealed that an expected annual temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius by 2050 will leave the cocoa-producing areas too hot for chocolate.

Warmer conditions mean the heat-sensitive cocoa trees will struggle to get enough water during the growing season, curtailing the development of cocoa pods, containing the prized cocoa bean.

Fatal Cocoa Extension Error

With the exception of the Greater Accra region, cocoa used to be cultivated in all areas of Southern Ghana.

Farmers will clear the forests in these areas to plant their cocoa due to the soil fertility of forest lands.

Initially, some remnant trees were left to provide shade.

With the introduction of hybrid cocoa, however, farmers were advised to remove trees to engender higher yields from the hybrid.

Cocoa extension officers erred in discouraging the cultivation of hybrid cocoa under shade, said Dr. Anglaaere of the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

As an open-sun cocoa, the hybrid cocoa yields higher than when under shade. However, the variety draws heavily on soil nutrients through the export of the beans from the system.

“Within a short time, the nutrient pool within the soil gets depleted very fast and yields begin to decline,” observed Dr. Anglaaere.

Nutrient loss and sun scorch, he said, are major challenges to sustainability. With climate change, temperatures are high and the cocoa trees struggle in the heat and limited nutrients in the soil.

The open-sun system practice, therefore, requires external inputs of fertilizers and agrochemicals for the crop to journey beyond the 15-25 year life-span.

“Our cocoa is not growing healthily and yields are also beginning to suffer. So, invariably, we have to, at any cost, try to bring back shades into that system because the hybrid also does well under shade,” said the researcher.

Now, the government’s policy looks at the possibility of managing areas outside the permanent reserves on sustainable basis, including the promotion of agro-forestry and tree planting.

Farmers are now encouraged to integrate trees in their cocoa production.

Promoting a More Beneficial Shade-Loving System

Ghana has lost half of its forests since 2000, and the rate of loss is two percent per year.

Head of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Fund (CIF), Mafalda Duarte, during a recent visit to Ghana, reiterated the country’s risk of losing its total forest cover if the trend of forest loss continued unchecked.

The CIF has over the past decade invested $75.7 million in Ghana’s reforestation program, implemented by the Forestry Commission and the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) to help reverse forest degradation in reserves and off-reserves.

The Fund’s intervention is driving a paradigm shift in cocoa production from a “sun loving system” to a more beneficial “shade-loving system” for better yields, better soil, better preserved water streams and biodiversity.

“We ask the farmers to combine the cocoa trees with timber trees, high yielding economic trees. Once you have the timber trees on the farm, they will be providing a lot of shade because cocoa is a forest plant and it thrives best when it exists with other trees,” said COCOBOD Chief Executive, Joseph Boahen Aidoo.

Partnerships for Sustainable Cocoa Production

Among challenges affecting productivity levels of cocoa in West Africa are over-aged and diseased farms.

The world’s top cocoa producer, Cote d’Ivoire, which supplies two million tons of cocoa to the world market annually, is joining forces with Ghana to sustainably grow the bean.

The two leading cocoa economies are accessing a $1.2 billion investment facility from the African Development Bank (AfDB) to rehabilitate cocoa farms and replace forests that were razed to grow cocoa beans.

In Ghana, about 10,000 hectares of diseased cocoa trees will be cut down across the country from August 2018 as the COCOBOD kick-starts series of interventions to increase cocoa yields.

“We are also embarking on irrigation because of the climate effect…to help the farmers harvest all year round,” said Joseph Boahen Aidoo.

The drive to promote sustainable climate-smart cocoa production has been supported by not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations.

SNV Ghana, for instance, has over the years partnered the COCOBOD, the Forestry Commission and some private licensed cocoa buying companies to expose farmers to interventions in climate mitigation and adaptation for sustainable cocoa production.

“Indeed, the negative impact of climate change has become real in virtually all cocoa growing areas across the country and the results are decreasing productivity per unit size of farm,” said Charles Brefo-Nimo of SNV Ghana.

Under the SNV’s Shaded Cocoa Agroforestry Systems (SCAFS), farmers are supplied with tree seedlings to encourage afforestation for improved productivity.

“I received 1,111 cocoa hybrid seedlings, 1,111 pieces of plantain suckers and 30 pieces of economic trees for free, and this means that I have saved a lot of money to make other financial commitments,” said Yaa Ampomah, 60 year old farmer at Essam in the Bia West District of the Western region.

Putting Farmers First to Drive Smart Production

Prior to SNV’s intervention to introduce the farmers to new cocoa farm establishment model, they used to rehabilitate their unproductive farms by using cocoa beans from the disease susceptible Amazon cocoa pod without any planting design.

“Today, we are provided with technical agronomy and extensions support to do lining and pegging as well as using shade system in our farms,” said Christian Nkrumah, a 34 year old farmer from Asuopri Community.

FORIG’s Dr. Anglaaere expects that cocoa farmers would be trained and empowered to plant 15-30 trees on an acre of cocoa farm, more than the 6-7 trees recommended by the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG).

“It is just how you manage the trees that determine the level of impact that they have on the cocoa,” he said. “The type of tree species and management of the trees are important for climate smart production”.

He explained that cocoa and coffee are more shade-tolerant than other agricultural products. Therefore, the number of trees that can be put under food crops is not comparable to the number of trees that the cocoa crop can tolerate.

COCOBOD says it is implementing innovations to improve crop yield in order to boost the country’s cocoa production to one million metric tons ahead of a five-year target.

But Charles Brefo-Nimo of SNV Ghana, says the future for sustainable cocoa production in Ghana requires a multi-facet approach which should be grounded on strong public and private sector funding.

“Cocoa renovation and rehabilitation with agro-forestry system model is a critical climate change adaptation model but other innovative models such as appropriate cost effective and affordable irrigation scheme should be introduced at smallholder levels,” he said.