Cultivating a sustainable future in cacao production

Situated within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, the Philippines belongs to what is called the “Cacao Belt,” an ideal hub for cacao production.

Once known for its vital cacao industry, the Philippines has fallen behind other countries such as Vietnam in terms of yield, productivity, and agricultural technology. This has left the country a net importer of cacao with low production of 10,000 MT every year, unable to meet both the local and global demands. This is associated with the aging cacao trees, the shortage of viable planting materials, and the lack of support and knowledge on good agricultural practices, especially for smallholder farmers.

Given this, the national roadmap for the cacao sector, has been set to ambitiously increase production tenfold to 100,000 metric tons of fermented beans by 2022, providing sustainable incomes for as many as 130,000 farmers. Perspectives look bright since industry forecasts suggest that global demand will grow a further, urging major buyers in the US and Europe to seek alternative sources. Studies indicate that to achieve such an effort will require more than agricultural land expansion but also to increase cacao yield to its potential by providing proper crop nutrition, support and guidance as well as knowledge on efficient cacao farming among many small hold farmers.

In order to address sector challenges and support sustainable growth, Yara, the world’s leading fertilizer company and a provider of environmental solutions, and Asia Society for Social Improvement and Sustainable Transformation (ASSIST) have partnered to implement a project called “CacaoPro”. The project is aimed to increase the productivity and profitability of cacao farmers in five areas in Mindanao namely, Davao City, Davao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley, and Agusan del Sur.

Training of cacao farmers on field.

The project centered on training more than 100 smallholder cacao farmers on good farming practices and proper crop nutrition. By helping farmers improve their knowledge and skills, it is expected that the quality and quantity of their yield will significantly improve, so is their income and livelihood.

The first batch of the training program has catered to 27 cacao farmers. These farmers attended a series of in-classroom and on-farm training held from August 2018 to December 2018. The intensive training has covered topics including farm establishment and maintenance, genetics and pollination, soil fertility and management, crop nutrition, integrated pest and disease management, farm rehabilitation, and effective farm planning. Upon completing all the requirements of the training program, these farmers now earn the title “Cacao Specialists”.

One of the successful graduates, Evangelyn To-ong, 35, who has been farming for five years said: “Apart from gaining new knowledge and skills, being a cacao specialist has helped me find an additional source of income. Just recently, I was hired as a consultant and trainer for a local social enterprise based in Davao City, and as a farm manager of various cacao farms in Compostela Valley and Agusan del Sur.”

Evangelyn To-ong, trained cacao specialist.

The Cacao Specialists then facilitated the second batch of training, which ran from May 2019 to July 2019. Using the same training modules and approach, the second batch of training has successfully trained 78 cacao farmers. All the successful graduates of the training program received their diploma during the graduation ceremony held last September 4, 2019 in Tagum City, Davao del Norte.

Speaking about the commitment of Yara Fertilizers Philippines to the farmers during the graduation ceremony, Country Manager Nicolas Gan said: “This is just the start of what we can do. The potential is great, and we are keen to continue our efforts through research and dialogue [with the farmers] so we can improve our service to the cacao industry.”

Apart from the training program, a series of awareness-raising activities were also conducted. These include four educational discussions, five cacao model farm tours, and two showcase forums, which in total had 703 cacao farmers in attendance.

Four model farms were also established through the project. These are: 1) ZBM Farm (Davao City); 2) Puno Farm (Davao del Norte); 3) NICO Farm (Compostela Valley); and 4) Cover a Farm (Agusan del Sur). All these model farms used farmer’s practice and Yara fertilizers to show the effectiveness and efficiency of Yara’s crop nutrition solution providing balanced and complete nutrition composed of essential macro, secondary and micro nutrients required to attain full yield potential and better quality cacao beans. The cop nutrition solution is composed of YaraMila Winner (15-9-20+Mg+S+B+Mn+Zn), YaraMila Grower (13-11-21+Mg+B), and YaraLiva Nitrabor (N+Ca+B).

As of August 2019, the results of Yara’s crop nutrition solution showed that the total pod yield is less compared to farmer’s practice. However, the total dry beans recovery of 32% is better with Yara versus 29%. While the average pod index (number of pods to produce 1 kg of dry beans) improved from 40 to 28 for farmer’s practice and using Yara crop nutrition solution, respectively.

As part of the program’s aim to improve profitability, three postharvest processing facilities for cacao bean fermentation and drying were also constructed for the benefit of three rural-based organizations. These organizations are Rural Improvement Club of San Isidro in Davao del Norte, Mahalyang Salaysay Farmers’ Association in Davao City, and Barangay Baylo Cocopal Farmers’ Association in Compostela Valley. In total, these organizations have 917 active members who will gain economic benefits from these facilities.

The facilities were formally inaugurated on September 11, 2019. The leaders of these organizations extended their sincerest gratitude to the project, and have pledged to optimize the facilities by linking with local government agencies, and cocoa trading and processing companies. The cocoa beans processed in three RBO facilities resulted to higher quality dried beans, improving selling price by 175% from unfermented and undried beans to fermented and dried beans.

The project has formally ended on October 2019, but with Yara’s commitment, together with the public sector, this continue increasing the agricultural productivity and efficiency of cacao farmers in Mindanao through knowledge transfer and sharing of good practices.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s December 2019 issue. 

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