Papua New Guinea’s largest cocoa grower, trader and exporter, Agmark, says cocoa yields in East New Britain could double, as a result of new technology arising from the battle to recover from the impact of the cocoa pod borer.
The province used to be the chief provider of cocoa, with annual yields of more than 25,000 tonnes until the cocoa pod borer (CPB) hit. More than 80 per cent of cocoa farmers abandoned their plantations between 2008 and 2012, and sought work elsewhere. By 2013, only 4,000 tonnes was produced in the province.
It was a massive blow to the local economy, with the loss of income felt by every household in the province.
The fightback has involved significant investment in time, research and training, with Agmark joined by PNG Sustainable Development Ltd and the World Bank, through the Cocoa Board’s Productive Partners in Agriculture Projects (PPAP). Earlier this year, the World Bank approved US$30 million (K76 million) for projects in six provinces.
More than 234,000 cocoa seedlings have now been planted on 1,172 smallholder farms, Agmark Managing Director, John Nightingale, told Business Advantage PNG.
The plan, he says, is to plant another 234,000 cocoa seedlings, and develop the concept of rotational replanting of the cocoa crop throughout its farmer networks.
The investment is likely to pay off sooner than expected. Cocoa prices have risen 16 per cent in the last 12 months.
Hedge funds are betting that cocoa prices will rise even further, based on fears that ebola will spread from Liberia and Guinea to the world’s top cocoa bean producer Ivory Coast, where 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa is produced.
While Nightingale expects prices to increase because of the Ebola crisis, he doubts the local industry will benefit.
‘Ebola will not increase PNG exports as we export 100 per cent already,’ he told BusinessAdvantage PNG.
The only way to export more PNG cocoa is to produce more.
‘I do expect prices to rise in response to the Ebola issue.
‘PNG cocoa is recognised as a fine flavour cocoa in the world market and normally attracts a price premium above terminal market price due to this.’
Among the measures taken under the PPAP scheme are a new and hardier seedling, which has the potential to more than double the cocoa yield for farmers, and withstand the CPB and other diseases.
A new training facility has also been built at Tokiala, outside Kokopo, where farmers are taught management of cocoa plantations, especially how to manage the effects of CPB.
Nightingale says research at Tokiala has demonstrated farmers would get 2.5 tonnes per hectare, if they adopted an intensive management strategy called ‘Every Pod, Every Tree, Every Week’. Smallholder blocks were on average producing only 0.4 tonnes per hectare previously.
Another strategy has been to appoint ‘lead farmers’, whose role is to lead and influence other farmers on the best practice crop cultivation, and how to manage cocoa farming as a sustainable business.
Since his appointment as a lead farmer, Tolick Wartoto has planted more than a 1000 trees with his family, and they now have public motor vehicle, a trade store and a contract to collect cocoa beans from other farmers, for Agmark.
As a result of the success of the Productive Partnership in Agriculture Project (PPAP), more than 500 farmers in the Gazelle district of East New Britain have now formed the Baining Cocoa Cooperative Society, and work has begun to rehabilitate their old cocoa blocks.