December 2, 2014
“Before I started using fertilizer on my land, I only harvested one bag of cocoa per acre, but after I started applying fertilizer, I now harvest five bags of cocoa from the same area,” says Elizabeth Sarfo, a cocoa farmer with 26 years of experience from Ajumako, in the Bosu District in Ghana.
Higher cocoa yields have changed the life of her family. “My husband and I have five children, but in addition to our own kids we take care of my sister's four children after she died some years ago,” Elizabeth tells us. “We also house some of my husband’s relatives, and that is another five people.” This adds up to quite a numerous household. By employing modern farming techniques Elizabeth Sarfo and her family now gain more money from what they harvest. “We are now building a new house with the money we have earned from our farm,” she says.
But it is not only her family who have seen recent changes due to increased yields. Elizabeth has seen the local society change over recent years. “By applying fertilizer the farmers got more money and they send their children to school, like we now can afford to do,” she says. “And now that the cocoa business is growing, some come back and work with farming, as well."
Sander Muilerman, working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), has co-authored a scientific paper describing the cocoa sector’s sustainable intensification.
“In the 90s, the acreage of cocoa farming in the forests of Ghana’s western region expanded rapidly without increased deliveries. The situation was turning negative,” explains Muilerman. There was a need to turn cocoa production logic around.
“The Ghana Cocoa Board decided around the millennium that they simply could not allow the area to expand, and substituted the need for land with fertilizers,” says Muilerman.
“They put 60,000 people on the ground, sprayed to prevent pests and brought in subsidized fertilizers. They have demonstrated that a sustainable intensification program is feasible, resulting in much less pressure on land,” says Muilerman.
Mean cocoa yields increased from 200 kilos per hectare in 2001 to more than 500 kilos per hectare in 2011.
“Deforestation is much lower. We looked at a benchmark area with 47% mature cocoa coverage and a forest reserve. Achieving the 2010 cocoa production using the old technology would have taken the 402 km² forest reserve plus another 316 km² elsewhere,” explains Muilerman.
The safeguarded forest of 402 km2 represents major carbon storage and a global natural asset. In the paper of Muilerman et al, the mitigated emissions of CO2 are estimated to be 17.6 million tons.
Globally, Ghana’s yield levels are still relatively low and, according to Muilerman, 1,000 kilos per hectare is a realistic goal for a smallholder farmer. Current fertilization rates are still well below recommended levels, but this is far from the only remaining challenge.
“For larger farms, access to labor is the limiting factor, especially during harvesting. Improved plant varieties are available, but take a lot of work and resources. Access to finance, training and availability of inputs are issues, and markets need to become more effective – not least for real estate,” says Muilerman.
“IITA would also like to see fertilizer formulations specific to the crop and agro-ecological zones. Nutritional and micronutrient deficiencies differ widely between areas,” he explains.
Back in the village of Ajumako, we meet Elizabeth Sarfo again and she tells us that other farmers in the local community have been watching her. “Some of them are seeing that I have got money to buy fertilizer, and some of them are trying to buy fertilizer themselves. They say if they can get the money they will buy fertilizer to apply on their fields,” she says.
The global cocoa supply is under pressure and prices are rising. Yara is developing a dedicated program to improve its deliveries to cocoa growers, farmers such as Elizabeth Sarfo.