Cocoa is Uganda’s fourth-biggest commodity export after coffee, tea and fish. Since its introduction in the 1970s, cocoa growing has remained a major crop in Bundibugyo, Mukono and Luweero districts. But there is growing interest.
According to Job Chemutai Alunga, a cocoa breeder at the National Coffee Research Institute (NaCORI) Kituuza station in Mukono District, non-traditional areas such as Kibale, Busoga, Hoima, Koboko, Arua and Pader have taken up cocoa growing because of sustained promotional efforts.
Since the 2013/14 financial year, the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) has distributed more than 20 million cocoa seedlings contributing to the increased production of cocoa by 9 per cent.
Chemutai says that the biggest challenge has always been lack of access to quality seedlings as well as declining yields in Bundibugyo where there is a high population of older trees. Additionally, this led to a build-up of diseases.
Chemutai explains that cocoa is an important cash crop because it can last between 50-80 years with the first commercial production after six years.
Up to 450 trees can be planted in an acre at a spacing of 3x3 metres. Under ideal growing conditions, each plant is expected to yield between three and four kilogrammes of dry cocoa. With a kilogramme of dry beans going at a market price of Shs7,000, a farmer can earn a minimum of Shs9.4m per season.
Although the peak period is between April to July and October to December, even during the dry period farmers can still harvest.
“With cocoa there is continuous cash flow. This is an important aspect in poverty eradication,” Chemutai says.
Cocoa is a lazy man’s crop whose cost of production is low. The recommended management practices include pruning, weed control and removal of diseased plants.
Cocoa should be transplanted after about four months.
The preferred parent trees should be vigorous and healthy. The plant should be planted in the centre of the pit, not too deep.
The natural habitat of the cocoa tree is at altitudes upto 1200 m above sea level with an annual rainfall of 1000mm to 2000mm and a wide range of soil types with pH ranging from 4.5- 8.0 with optimum being 6.5- 7.0.
Alice Nambuya, explains that in managing cocoa plants, consideration must be given to shade trees. She notes that during the seedling period, cocoa requires about 50 per cent shade and later the shade requirement is about 40 per cent.
“Without shade trees, you cannot go far. If cocoa is overexposed to drought conditions, it experiences dieback which shortens the life of the tree,” she says. Dieback is a condition in which a cocoa plant begins to die from the tip of its leaves backwards owing to a harsh environment. The recommended shade trees in Uganda are the musizi trees.
Nambuya recommends pruning and weed control as necessary practices. “Since cocoa is a perennial crop, it is important to manage weeds to avoid competition for nutrients,” she says.
Pruning, which happens twice a year after harvesting, encourages a tree structure that allows sunlight to filter through to the main branches and trunk to stimulate flowering and facilitate harvesting.
Nambuya says that fan branches should be limited to three or four to allow more light penetration and decrease the humidity within the canopy.
All low hanging branches, old and diseased branches and branches growing into the centre of the canopy should be removed. All the pruned branches and leaves should be left in the field to rot down, except the diseased ones.
Integrated weed management practices include weeding when the plants are between three and four years. When the plants establish a canopy, she recommends ring weeding around the plant and slashing the rest of the garden. At a younger stage, intercrops with bananas are recommended to ensure food security.
Nambuya does not recommend the use of herbicides as they are detrimental to the soil health. “Soils exposed to herbicides have a tendency to harden which destroys the life below,” she explains. Nambuya adds that soils must be amended by using organic fertilisers such as manure compost and mulching when necessary.
Charles Kabole, a pests and diseases expert, however cautions farmers to be on the lookout for the losses caused by pests and diseases. Pests and diseases, Kabole says, can cause farm losses amounting to 60 per cent of the crop. Cocoa is attacked by pests such as mealy bugs which colonise the tender parts of the plant such as shoots, terminal buds, flowers and pods.
Tea mosquito bugs develop circular water soaked spots around the feeding punctures which causes deformation of pods.
Flatid plant hoppers which concentrate on sucking sap from flowers, shoots and pods lead to development of sooty mould fungus on the leaves and pods.
Aphids, which normally attack during the hot days or immediately after the rainy season leads to premature shedding of flowers and curling of leaves.
Cocoa is also exposed to non-insect pests such as monkeys, squirrels, mole rats, baboons and people, especially school-going children and pregnant mothers.
But Cocoa is also exposed to diseases such as seedling blight, black Pod rot, stem canker, Cherelle wilt pod borers and stem borers.
Cocoa pods take 150-170 days from pollination to attain the harvest stage. The stage of maturity is visible from the change of pod colour from green to yellow and red to yellow.
Poor post-harvest handling can cause cocoa beans to be mouldy or germinate which compromises the cocoa quality by possible contamination by mycotoxins and off-flavours.
Nambuya explains that pods should preferably be harvested using a knife, panga, secateurs (are a simple, hand-held tools), or by twisting, to avoid wounding the tree.
Afterwards, the pods should be broken using a wooden log to avoid any damage to the beans. The beans should then be collected in a clean container ensuring that under-ripe or diseased beans are removed.
Fermentation is a critical post-harvest process in cocoa production as it is responsible for flavour development. Fermentation compliments drying.
Joseph Mulindwa, a food scientist at NaCORI explains that the box fermentation, unlike the traditional heap fermentation process that uses a combination of banana leaves and polythene bag, is ideal for small scale farmers who harvest about 40-60 kilogrammes. The fermentation box has an advantage of hand turning, an activity scientists say is easily adoptable at household level.
While using the fermentation box, Mulindwa tips farmers to consider other good practices such as removal of diseased seeds and the placenta in order to achieve high grade seeds.
Although the fermentation box is set on a platform, it should also be kept in a clean shelter. “As a general rule, temperature must be regulated during fermentation. This demands avoiding direct exposure to the sun,” he says.
A shelter, he adds, has an added value of minimising cocoa theft.
The production of the fermentation boxes is still at research level with prototypes being tested among some farmers who desire changes including wooden mixers which they say are not long lasting.
Mixing is very important in dealing with aeration and preventing rotting. The routine is repeated every 24 hours until the beans turn from purple to brown for about 4-8 days. Naro scientists are now working on implementing mixing materials with food grade metals.
For large scale farmers and bulkers that need large volumes, boxes are still the preferred method of fermentation.
After fermentation, Mulindwa recommends slow drying under the sun. The fermented cocoa beans have a moisture content ranging between 55-69 per cent. The moisture content of well dried beans is around 6–7 per cent.
Cleaned beans should be packed in gunny bags and kept on a raised platform of wooden planks for storage.
Value addition targeting extraction of high value products from cocoa is key to researchers at Kituuza. Mulindwa says that farmers working through cooperatives can increase earnings by selling intermediary products. The researchers have tested such products as butter and cocoa powder.
Naro has effectively extracted cocoa butter which is used to make lip balms and provide a foundation for beauty products such as lotion.
At research level, experts have been able to make alcoholic wine from cocoa juice.
Mulindwa explains that all that a farmer requires is a fermentation tank and yeast to start instead of leaving the juice flow away as is the practice during fermentation.
Plant cocoa trees at the beginning of the rainy season.
Choose a day when the soil is moist and when the sky is cloudy.
Plant the young cocoa trees when they are about 6 months old.
A few days before planting, fill in the holes you have dug.
At the bottom of the hole, put the soil you have dug out from the top, and on top put the soil you have dug out from below.
You may mix the soil with manure.
When the cocoa trees have grown taller, they need less shade.
You should gradually give them less and less shade.
You should prune the big trees and cut off those branches that cast too much shade.
When the plantation is well cared for, you can cut down all the big trees.