In a publication by Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi) about general production of cocoa, it is stated that the plant was widely cultivated by the Maya-speaking people of tropical Central America in the 16th century.
The Mayan found at least 1,000 years ago that, when roasted, the seeds or beans of the cocoa tree produced an aroma so divine and they believed the tree was a gift from the god called Quetzalcoatl.
From the roasted beans, they made a drink, often used at ceremonies and rituals, called xocolatl, from which the word ‘chocolate’ is derived.
More than 80 per cent of all cocoa is produced by smallholder farmers and it provides employment in many rural communities and pays for school fees of farmers’ children, including in Uganda.
Brian Johnson, a graduate student from Makerere University has been into cocoa farming since childhood having adopted the practice from his grandfather.
The 24-year-old talks to Seeds of Gold and narrates the best agronomy practices farmers should adopt.
He grows cocoa on 10 acres of family land in Jinja and five acres of land which he is renting in Mukono.
He raises the seedlings for commercial purposes which other farmers come to purchase on his farm. Each seedling costing Shs1,500.
Choosing and preparing the plantation
Farmers must ensure the land chosen for planting cocoa contains good soil texture.
The cocoa tree has tap roots which descend straight into the soil and the penetration is deep.
If the soil is of good structure and contains much humus, the roots penetrate well.
Never plant cocoa trees in soil with a lot of stones, or in soil where there is some hard layer.
Clearing the site
In Africa, cocoa is grown in forest regions and to make a plantation, you must clear the site and ensure there is some plantation of tree species available to provide cocoa tree shade.
Farmers are encouraged to plant banana in a cocoa plantation. The banana provides a shade to the young cocoa trees.
The three main varieties of cocoa plant are Forastero which has purpled coloured beans, Criollo is green, and Trinitario is a hybrid type which is a result of crossing the two varieties.
A cocoa nursery usually has a simple structure as a roof with palm leaves as cover for shading and is usually situated close to a source of water for irrigation.
Cocoa beans are collected from healthy ripe pods and planted into nursery bags filled with clean topsoil and care should be taken not to introduce soil borne diseases through seedlings.
After four months, the seedlings are ready for transplanting. Vegetative propagation can be done through cuttings.
Tree cuttings are taken with between two and five leaves and one or two buds.
The leaves are cut in half and the cutting placed in a pot under polythene until roots begin to grow.
When budding, a bud is cut from a tree and placed under a flap of bark on another tree.
The budding patch is then bound with waxed tape of clear plastic to prevent moisture loss.
It is important to plant the seedlings in rows and mark the rows 2.5 to 3 metres apart.
In this way you can plant about 1,000 to 1,600 seedlings per hectare. Before planting cocoa trees, the grower must dig holes in order to stir the earth and loosen it.
It is important to carry out planting at the beginning of the rainy season. Plant the young cocoa trees seedlings when they are about six months old.
Pruning and shade management are essential elements of cocoa management involving thinning of branches and removal of old dead stems.
Shade management involves leaving forest trees to optimise the light intensity in the cocoa grove.
Pruning serves many purposes, including determining the shape of the tree. It is important that the tree is shaped to facilitate local management practices.
Soil nutrient management
The fertility of soils under cocoa plantations with complete canopy formation can be sustained for a fairly long time. This is due to the ability of cocoa to recycle nutrients back into the soil through leaf fall and decomposition of leaf litter.
However, continuous harvesting will eventually result in loss of soil nutrients. Fertiliser use is advisable and NPK and Super Gro are recommended.
A number of weed control strategies are available to farmers. Cultural and mechanical controls include use of shade, weed slashing using a machete and maintaining leaf litter on the soil to function as a mulch. Mulch can consist of naturally occurring leaf litter in cocoa plantations with a complete canopy, which has an add-on benefit of replenishing soil nutrients to some extent.
Pest and diseases
Most farmers growing the plant need to deal with a range of pest organisms such as black pod, mirids, stem borer, mistletoe, termites and cocoa swollen shoot virus.
Furthermore, through increasing global movement of plant material, there is a looming threat of introduction of Witches’ Broom and Frosty Pod diseases.
This can be controlled through spraying using Idofil fungicide mixed with super gro.
Farmers are expected to collect the pods at a central location, where pods are broken, husks removed and the white-yellowish seed masses are heaped together for fermentation.
Fermentation takes about five to seven days, depending on the season and temperature.
Farmers sometimes mix the heap on the second or third day to allow aeration and uniform fermentation.
During fermentation the cocoa flavour develops and the beans turn brown. After fermentation, beans are transferred to drying tables or mats or other surfaces depending on the method.
Drying takes about one week in the sun and brings the bean moisture down to about 7.5 per cent. Dried beans are sold in jute bags. Some farmers prefer to sell dried beans which cost Shs9,500 per kilogramme while others sell fresh beans costing Shs4,500 per kg. Companies such as Britannia are major buyer.