By Busani Bafana
OUATTARADOUGOU, Ivory Coast (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Abou Ouattara has grown cocoa for the last 17 years, but luckily the 52-year-old does not have a sweet tooth.
“I grow cocoa to provide for my family and only eat chocolate to have a taste,” said Ouattara, walking around his farm in Ouattaradougou village, around 30 km (18.6 miles) east of Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan.
“I cannot afford to buy a lot of chocolate because I have a big family and that comes first,” he added, noting a small box of chocolate can cost up to 800 CFA francs ($1.39).
Cocoa production is a key source of income for many smallholder farmers in Ivory Coast, who plant on average 1 to 3 hectares (2.5 to 7.4 acres).
But production has slumped over the years as a result of poor yields blamed on extreme weather, weak global prices and low-quality cocoa.
A 2011 study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) predicted cocoa farming will be hit as climate change alters growing conditions, leading to a fall in production by 2030.
But the researchers also said rising temperatures offer an opportunity to boost production if farmers adapt their practices. It recommended better shading for cocoa trees and the use of improved varieties.
Cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast are now trying to turn the tide by planting varieties that are hardier and faster-maturing than those grown since cocoa was introduced to Africa centuries ago.
The first cocoa trees Ouattara and his brother planted on the 8-hectare farm they acquired in 1999 were old varieties that take up to five years to mature.
But after Ivorian researchers released a quick-growing, more resilient variety five years ago, the farmers switched to the aptly named “cacao Mercedes”. They are now selling more and better-quality beans, boosting their income.
In the last five years, Ouattara has harvested up to 7 tonnes of cocoa beans annually. But this year he is expecting as much as 9 tonnes.
“Over the years bad weather has affected the crop,” he said. But the Mercedes variety is reliable even when the weather misbehaves, he added.
“It has made a big difference for me,” he said, picking a ripe yellow pod from a cluster of green ones on a tree.
This season, many Ivorian cocoa farmers have been harvesting small beans with a high acid content due to a prolonged dry season and harsh desert winds. Now some are also struggling to dry beans because of recent heavy rains.
Ivory Coast, which produced over 1.8 million tonnes of cocoa beans in 2015, is the world's largest producer and exporter of cocoa, contributing around 45 percent of global production, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the country lost an estimated 150 billion CFA francs ($261 million) in trade revenue in the last five years because of a poor-quality crop, according to its Coffee and Cocoa Council (Le Conseil du Café-Cacao).
In response, the council has embarked on a national campaign to improve quality, targeting some 1 million small-scale cocoa farmers.
Franck Wohe, a quality control expert with the state agency, said it has instituted quality checks at the farm gate, as well as in the processing and export of cocoa beans.
The council is working with the agriculture extension service to train farmers, providing them with phytosanitary products, including insecticides and bags for storing dried beans to avoid contamination.
It has also provided the Mercedes variety to small producers under a national policy enacted in 2011 to boost quality and promote value addition.
“We started distributing the high-yielding drought-resistant Mercedes variety to help farmers get production fast within 18 months,” said Wohe. The variety has a rich aroma and a high-fat content loved by chocolate makers, he added.
Massandjé Touré-Litsé, director-general of the council, is pushing for a sustainable cocoa industry that can increase the productivity of smallholder farmers. With partners, she mobilized 11 billion CFA francs ($19 million) in 2015 to improve farmers’ livelihoods through training to boost quality coffee and cocoa production.
The council is also running a national campaign to get more Ivorians to consume local cocoa and coffee products, through activities like tastings and awareness talks.
The World Cocoa Foundation says cocoa produced by over 5 million smallholder farmers around the world supports the livelihoods of more than 50 million people.
Demand for the beans, driven by rising incomes in emerging markets, is projected to reach 4.5 million tonnes a year by 2020, up from an average of 3.5 million tonnes now.
Ouattara may be no chocolate connoisseur but he plays his small part in feeding a global indulgence estimated to be worth nearly $99 billion this year.
“Cocoa needs to be tendered like a baby until it flowers and matures - after that, you never go for a day without getting something from your cocoa tree,” said the farmer.
(Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)