By Ange Aboa
BONOUA, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Nestle on Wednesday ramped up its distribution of disease-resistant cocoa trees to farmers in Ivory Coast, part of a plan to boost productivity per hectare and improve the notoriously poor quality of the top grower's cocoa beans.
The world's biggest food maker, which has distributed some 140,000 saplings since 2009, said it will hand out 600,000 saplings by the end of the month and a further one million next year in a bid to raise productivity on farms.
Diseases and aging trees mean Ivorian cocoa yields are amongst the lowest in the world at less than 500 kg per hectare compared to 2 tonnes in Indonesia and 1.5 tonnes in Ghana.
The Swiss company has a policy of giving away trees but retains the priority to buy the cocoa produced from them through exporters ADM Cocoa, Cargill, COCAF-Ivoire-Noble and Outspan-Olam.
"The goal of the program is to create new plantations from old, that is to say we cut down the old trees and put new varieties in their place," said Philippe Courbet, head of research and development at Nestle Abidjan.
Productivity could double with the new trees, Nestle said.
Pests such as black pod and swollen shoot disease have damaged cocoa crops and remain a threat to what is otherwise expected to be a bumper 2010/11 season that has already overshot a 1.3 million tonne target more than two months before the end of the season.
This week, a total of 120,000 plants will be distributed in the cocoa growing regions of Bonoua, Divo and Daloa, he said.
"The characteristics of these new varieties is that they have high yields of two tonnes per hectare and are resistant to major diseases, notably swollen shoot," Courbet said.
Damp conditions and a lack of sun could still hurt Ivory Coast's cocoa harvest in the coming weeks, farmers said on Monday, citing the appearance of the black pod fungal disease in some areas where humidity is too high.
Cocoa officials estimate Ivory Coast has some 3 billion cocoa trees and ultimately only a state-supported program of replanting will stem the decline in productivity.
Cocoa sector reforms needed to halt the decline in Ivorian yields have been held back by a decade of political crisis, but the end of a violent conflict over a disputed election in April may usher in the stability needed to tackle these structural problems.
Farmers said the new trees would help boost productivity.
"With our old cocoa trees, even if you plant a hectare, you won't get one tonne of cocoa out of it," said farmer Pierre Diagone, walking along rows of the new saplings.
"Now they are talking about 2 tonnes from this new variety. We're happy to have them."
(Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by David Lewis)