Cocoa plantation farm in Ondo State
Mary David harvesting cocoa in her plantation farm in Ilutuntun camp in Odigbo Local Government Area, Ondo State. © Emmanuel Oshodi

Cocoa beans, used in making chocolate, are seeds from pods produced from the cocoa tree, from four years of its life; a small evergreen tree that grows exclusively in regions 20 degrees north or south of the equator. This perennial crop lasts for up to four decades. It thrives best under forest canopy where even temperatures of 21-23 degrees Celsius and rainfall 1000-2500mm per year is guaranteed. Seedlings, usually obtained from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture with office in Ibadan is best planted towards the beginning of the year’s rainy season, in the month of April or May. Nigeria’s cocoa year is divided into two harvests. The main-crop season begins in October and ends in January, while the light-crop season, the smaller of the two, usually begins in April and ends in June. The start and end dates of the two seasons may vary each year depending on the weather.

Nigeria, according to the ICCO, is the world’s sixth largest producers of cocoa, accounting for 7% of world production, and providing means of livelihood to about five million citizens. Nigeria ranks behind Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia as the world’s largest cocoa producer, according to the London-based International Cocoa Organisation. Cocoa exports are the biggest foreign-currency earner after oil for Nigeria, Africa’s leading crude producer and most populous nation, according to figures published by the government. Ondo State is the largest producing state in the country, and Governor Mimiko, as part of the so called Cocoa Revolution established a chocolate factory in 2016.

Cocoa descended from the Americas, where it is native, during the massive return of immigrants in the late 19th Century. In 1879, J.P.L. Davies, a Nigerian merchant traversing the Atlantic obtained cocoa seeds from a Brazilians ship off the island of Fernad Po. For the next twenty years he was responsible for all Cocoa shipped from Lagos. Cocoa production soon replaced Palm Oil in many parts of South West Nigeria. By the 1910s, the crop had been introduced into interior areas like Ife, Ondo, and Ekiti. Within another two decades, it had become the most profitable cash crop in forest areas, wide spread among serious farmers. So important it did become that a buying cartel was formed in the 1930s between British firms and colonial officials to limit the competition. The crop remained a mainstay of the Nigerian economy till the oil boom era of the 1970s. The government, under President Babangida liberalized the marketing and trade of the crop as advised by the World Bank and the IMF. Products were then sold through cooperatives and licensed buying agents who in turn sell to exporting firms. This move proved to be detrimental as subsequent abolition of commodity boards ended the effectiveness of cooperatives. Production level of Cocoa, which stood at 308,000 metric tons in 1970 had declined almost by half in 1999.

The dwindling oil revenue has caused an increased interest in the diversification of the Nigerian economy, hence widespread campaign for more farmers to go into cocoa production. This appears to be a smart option as it has been projected that the world may run out of affordable cocoa supply in two decades.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer