Ondo Is Blazing A Trail In Reviving Cocoa – Chair, Cocoa Revolution Project

The chairman Cocoa Revolution Project in Ondo State, Samuel Jibayo Oyebade, is a Veterinary doctor and former commissioner for Agriculture in the state. He spoke with ABIOSE ADELAJA ADAMS on the project at repositioning reposition cocoa as Nigeria’s main export earner.

What is the cocoa revolution in your state all about?
The cocoa revolution is an agricultural revolution in the state. The aim is to show that our cocoa farmers, if they do things right, can tremendously increase yield. Cocoa was abandoned for a long time because of the discovery of oil, yet it was the economic mainstay in the Western Region.

The state government has decided to rehabilitate moribund cocoa plantations on a 2,000 hectares land in Oda farm. It was Awolowo who instituted this estate and 70 per cent of the cocoa proceeds from this estate was used to build the Cocoa House in Ibadan.  We also have another station at Ore.

We have three senatorial training centres where we train farmers on modern methods that will help them increase yield and produce premium cocoa that is of international value.

A sum of N450 million has been invested in the project since kick off in 2013 and since then, it has been a 24-hours service for everybody.

So, what new methods are you introducing to them now different from what they are used to?

You see if you are doing the same thing the same way you will keep getting the same result. What they are doing now is not producing highly valued premium cocoa beans. At the international market, cocoa is bought at N600,000 per tonne, but Nigerian cocoa is still bought at discount price of  N450,000. And it is due to poor quality of our beans.

That is why we try to show the farmers through this project that we can produce premium cocoa beans. The reasons for poor quality beans are also due to ageing cocoa trees and using old methods. The farmers need to be helped.

How exactly are you showing them these modern methods?
The cocoa plantation we met is 2,000 hectares. We have only done work on 300 hectares. This is only a pilot project that kicked off in 2013.

You have to understand first that cocoa farming is very labour-intensive. The farmer has to come here every day. He needs at least 10 workers because he cannot do the under-brushing alone; he needs to spray the trees with chemicals against the black pod disease.

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Also, the de-poding process requires labour. So what we have done is that from the time the freshly mature pods are harvested, we show them how to grade. As you can see, we have a tent over there where we weigh the beans, so the farmer can know the number of tonnes and will not say they are cheated.

Then we show them how to sort. Afterwards, we have built another house for them here in the farm where they ferment (by washing and turning); after that there is a tent where they sun
dry.

At the end of all these processes, we will have premium beans. Any lapses in these methods can result in poor quality beans. Also, to produce premium beans, we have to guard against black pod disease. That black pod disease is one of the things that reduces yield of cocoa farmers and many of them do not have the finance to purchase chemicals to stem it.

The disease is so terrible that if one pod is affected, it will spread to the whole tree and then the whole plantation may be affected. At the end of the day, the farmer loses. So we help them to guard against this disease by purchasing chemicals they can use. We have spent N3million on chemicals alone, so far.

We also train them on pruning old cocoa trees, which are no longer yielding much. We are equally introducing cocoa seedlings that have a shorter gestation period than the normal ones. The ones they were using in the olden days take 5-6 years to start fruiting, but the ones we are introducing take 18 months.

Are the farmers responding?
Well, initially when we started, the farmers were reluctant because they did not trust the government. They thought we wanted to chase them out of the estate, but now several of them are responding. We have about 300 farmers working with us now.

What is the gain for farmers and the government?

Ondo State is the highest producer of cocoa in Nigeria. So, this is our own oil. We want to revive the glory of cocoa that was once lost and abandoned, especially now that oil price is falling. We want to see how this can boost our economy as a state and as a country in the long run.

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We are partnering SPAGnVOLA Cholatier, a U.S company which has chocolate boutiques in 17 international airports of the world. They are going to produce the chocolate for us from our own premium cocoa and they will also sell our chocolates at international markets.

On the long run, the government is also planning to set up the processing firm here. So, our cocoa will be for local consumption and international as well.  The gain for the farmers is that apart from the education we are giving them, 40 per cent of proceeds will go to the farmers Trust Fund, while the State and SPAGnVOLA takes the 60 per cent.

How is your chocolate going to be different from brands like Mars, Snickers?

Those ones are not chocolates. A lot of these chocolates contain very little percentage of cocoa. The rest of the content are additives. That is why they melt easily once not refrigerated.

But our cocoa here; the least contains 70 per cent cocoa. We have ones with 80 and 90 per cent cocoa. But those ones are very bitter. But it is like a medicinal tablet with very prolonged shelf life. You can take a tablet for three days, it will not melt away. It only needs a fairly cool place.

You mentioned local consumption. How much of our cocoa do Nigerians really consume?

The local consumption is very poor. According to statistics, only four per cent of Nigerian cocoa is consumed while 96 per cent is exported.
That is why there is a plan to set up a chocolate factory in the state. The government is also planning to buy cocoa produced from the Cocoa Revolution Project and feed primary school children every day with a cup of cocoa.

We also plan to drive local consumption by getting experts to talk about the health benefits of cocoa. Do you know that cocoa is nature’s wonder food with so many health benefits?

It is good for the heart. It contains several anti-oxidants that keep you looking younger, and so many other things?

Have all these efforts resulted employment of youths?

Through this project we have employed 25 graduates, retirees and rural  women. We have employed a total of 300 farm workers that were hitherto unemployed. We have been able to engage graduates on this project. Most are farm supervisors and farm record officers. Sometimes they join in the work. We have encouraged youths to also plant other crops apart from cocoa such as tomatoes, pepper, vegetable, okra.

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We also run poultry in the farm. The reason we are doing this is because cocoa is a seasonal plant. So when it is off season like now, the youths will not be idle, they can still grow other crops, harvest it and the money they make from it belongs to them. The same goes for the poultry too.

It is a side attraction that will generate income for them apart from the salary we pay them. As they are leaving the university they can quickly make up their mind whether they want to continue in agriculture or not and most of them are giving themselves to it rather than waiting for white collar jobs. From this project, we have also developed a fertilizer company.

So you don’t get fertilizer from the federal government?

No. We have our own fertilizer company. It is what I have tested for over 13 years in my farm and it works. Some Israelis came to us to partner with us in supplying us fertilizer. So I asked them what kind of fertilizer it is and they said it was inorganic. I just told them not to bother. We don’t use chemical fertilizer here because of its side effects.  We have a poultry, so we collect the droppings and mix with the cocoa husks to produce our own fertilizer.

But how much can you gather and how effective will it be?

If we want to harness the quantity of poultry droppings in this country, it will be in millions of tonnes. I will not tell you the proportion and other processes but I can guarantee you that we have tested it and we are currently bagging it.

What is the plan for sustainability of this project?

We are in the process of drafting a bill that we will take to the House of Assembly, because we don’t want another government to come in and scrap it. At least the present governor, Olusegun Mimiko still has another two years, so we are hopeful that by then, there will be a bill.