Tales from Idanre, Ondo State, the town regarded as the epicentre of cocoa cultivation in Nigeria, depict the retrogression that is the fate of the cocoa industry in Nigeria, PETER DADA writes
Idanre, an ancient town in the Idanre Local Government Area of Ondo State, is about 20 km away from Akure, the state capital. With a population of a little less than 200,000, it is surrounded by many hills and rocks. This unique feature has over time transformed the town into a major tourist destination in the country.
Idanre is also endowed with a very fertile soil, which is considered most suitable for the cultivation of cocoa. Indeed, with a large concentration of cocoa farms, it is clearly a major cocoa-producing area in Nigeria.
Haven for cocoa farmers
Cocoa, an important cash crop in Nigeria, is produced here on a large scale. The cop is also a major source of revenue for the inhabitants of the town and Ondo State in particular.
Almost every family boasts a cocoa farm, at least. Every year, between October and December, the residents are usually very busy in their farms harvesting the cop. When visitors from far and near arrive in the town during this period, they are greeted by the delicious aroma of fresh cocoa beans.
For the people of Idanre, this is the busiest time of the year. Many families usually spend most of their time preparing the crops for sale, mostly by drying the beans and packing them in bags. During this period, there is hardly a compound that one would not find bags of dried cocoa beans stacked in one corner, ready for sale.
Investigation shows that the town alone accounts for about 13 per cent of the total volume of cocoa produced in the 18 Local Government Areas in Ondo State.
Explaining why the town produces so much cocoa, an agriculturist, Jibayo Oyebade, says, “More rain falls in Idanre than other parts of Ondo State. This is because of the hills surrounding the town. Scientists say the hills are a micro-climatic condition of rainfall. The advantage of micro-condition is that it gives farmers better yields and if there is a laboratory analysis, their cocoa is likely to have the best quality in terms of nutrient composition. That is what makes Idanre the best cocoa producer in western Nigeria.”
The whole town, by way of expression, practically lives, breathes and dreams cocoa. Apart from being the mainstay of the local economy, it was gathered, many indigenes of the town, who have distinguished themselves in their various chosen fields, were trained with the proceeds from cocoa farming.
Although cocoa farmers in the town are yet to embrace mechanised farming, many of them are said to be living well on the proceeds from the sale of their produce yearly.
Neglected by government
However, in spite of its natural resources, successive governments in Ondo State seem to have neglected Idanre over the years. Some residents of the town, who spoke with our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said the only time they ever felt the presence of government the town was during Chief Obafemi Awolowo as the Premier of the Western Region.
Apart from a cocoa factory established in the town by the Olusegun Agagu administration in Ondo Sate, there is no agro-allied factory there. The Agagu administration had also renovated some primary and secondary schools in the local government areas and established a golf course, while the Mimiko administration constructed model and mega primary schools.
The immediate past administration in Ondo also started the annual mountain climbing festival, tagged MARE Festival, in Idanre and targeted at generating revenue from tourists. Both governments, however, failed to make significant impact on agriculture.
Some farmers identified a number of challenges facing the agrarian community. One of them is insufficient land space. As a result of this, many successful indigenes of the town built their houses in Akure.
A resident of the town, Mr. Felix Ajidagba, alleged that successive governments of Ondo State neglected Idanre despite the huge revenue they generated from its cocoa farms.
He said, “We want government presence in Idanre. As a buyer of farm produce in this community, I know cocoa business is like a chain. We have the farmers, the middlemen who we call agents, the buyers and the exporters. One of the major challenges we are facing is the absence of good roads. We have no good roads to transport our produce from the farms in the rural areas to the towns. This is seriously affecting our production.
“We appeal to the state government to rehabilitate the roads for us. We are tired of spending a lot of money to transport our farm produce. We also want the government to assist our farmers in the provision of agrochemicals and loans.”
Ajidagba took a glance at cocoa farming between the 1950s and 1960s, saying that there was a few farmers in those days and they only produced small quantities of cocoa.
He said, “Nowadays, we have many farmers and this has increased the volume of production of cocoa. If we compare the quality of seedlings produced in those days with what we have now, I think we had better seedlings. Again, the weather was more favourable to cocoa production than it is now.
“That is why we need government’s assistance for better production; there are more graduates in Idanre that are involved in cocoa business now and we are having a better output than before. If the government can address our challenges, the output would be much higher than before.”
Similarly, a cocoa farmer, Mr. Olurakinse Haristhacus, described transportation as a serious challenge facing cocoa farmers and businessmen in Idanre. Blaming the situation on the absence of a good road network in the area, he called on the state government to intervene.
He said, “Government’s negligent attitude has not encouraged cocoa farmers in this part of the country. The last time we felt government’s presence in this area was during Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s tenure as premier of the old Western Region. In those days, government provided free education for the children of farmers and supplied the farmers agrochemicals at subsidised rates. It also built many good roads then.
“Nowadays, government officials would rather increase our grading fees than assist us. They collect a lot of money from us, but they don’t provide anything for us. In some places where there are no good roads, it is always difficult for us to transport bags of cocoa beans to the market. Nobody wants go to where is no good road. Sometimes, we are left with no other choice than to transport the produce on commercial motorcycles for over four miles.”
Haristhacus also described the persistent fluctuation of the price of cocoa as another challenge facing cocoa farmers in Idanre, which requires government’s urgent attention.
Noting that the price of cocoa, which was N1,200 per kilogram in 2016, had gone down to N650, he said, “This is why many farmers are desperate to make some profits this year. Some have borrowed money, hoping that they would pay back after selling their cocoa. Unfortunately, the price of cocoa is now falling. That is a big challenge.”
Another serious challenge, our correspondent gathered, is lack of formal education on the part of many of the farmers. As a result of this and their lack of exposure to Information and Communication Technology, many of the farmers are unable to access the Internet to learn about the price of cocoa and the best time to sell their produce.
‘Cocoa changed our lives’
A medical doctor and native of Idanre, Dr. Kola Ademujimi, told our correspondent that cocoa farming had transformed the lives of many residents of the town, indigene and non-indigene alike.
Ademujimi, who said he combined cocoa farming and medical practice to make a living, also described himself as a beneficiary of a scholarship scheme funded by the Nigeria Cocoa Board.
Recalling the golden years of cocoa farming in the region, he said, “In those days, cocoa was the mainstay of the economy of Idanre and the South-West as a whole. That was why Awolowo was able to perform well. In those days, everybody in our town was a cocoa farmer. The land was so fertile that within three years of planting the seedlings, you could start harvesting cocoa. Many of us were able to go to school because money was available in almost every home.
“When I left primary school, my parents decided that it would not be possible to go further in my education. So, even as a boy, I went into the farm and learnt how to plant cocoa myself. Later, my father asked me to go back to school. When he died, I was already in my first year in secondary school. But my mother was able to cope in his absence because we had made enough money from the sale of the cocoa in our farm.
“When I entered the University of Ibadan as a medical student, I was offered a scholarship by the then Nigeria Cocoa Board. So I am a beneficiary of cocoa. I count myself as a lucky person. After paying my school fees then, I also had enough money left to pay the school fees of my siblings. The western region gave us bursary awards and we were also entitled to loans. All of this was funded with cocoa money.”
‘Give us good roads, electricity, potable water’
Ademujimi has joined other residents of Idanre in calling on government to see the development of the town as a major task that must be done.
“The average cocoa farmer cannot tar our roads, nor provide electricity and portable water. It is the duty of government to provide these things. There should be government presence in Idanre. This is very important to us. If government can pay attention to the needs of the farmers in the town, Idanre could be the largest revenue base for the Ondo State Government,” he said.
Also, explaining why it is necessary for government to focus on the community, a a former Commissioner for Agriculture in the state and former chairman of the defunct Ondo State Cocoa Revolution Project, Dr. Oyebade, described cocoa farmers in Idanre as very committed. He said, “They encroached the largest part of the reserved area around the town and planted cocoa inside it. They took the Cocoa Development Unit very serious, paid their part of two hundred shillings then and started planting.”
He called on the Rotimi Akeredolu-led administration to be proactive about agriculture, particularly cocoa farming. He alleged that the government had not impacted in the area of cocoa development because “the season for production of cocoa should start in October and we have not received any information whether they have started it or not.”
“For now the Federal Government’s idea on cocoa is to fully transform cocoa and it is a national programme. They have posted somebody to Ondo State to start the programme and we have begun the primary sensitisation in Alade Idanre,” the septuagenarian stressed.
The state Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Yemi Olowolabi , who is also an indigene of Idanre, admitted that the town lacked good roads He said the rocks make it difficult for the town to expand.
He stated, “This government has promised to empower youths through agriculture and work is already ongoing in that area. Idanre is one of the focused towns in the state. The challenge posed by bad roads in the town will be tackled. There will definitely be a positive change in the agricultural sector.
“Also, with what this government is doing now, there will be alternative roads to Idanre from Akure and Ondo towns. In 20 years, Idanre will be a different town entirely, especially if we have a government that will be really committed to the development of the town.”
Despite the lull, cocoa is said to be the leading agricultural export of the country and Nigeria is currently the world’s fourth largest producer of the crop, after Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Ghana. It is also said to be the third largest exporter, after Ivory Coast and Ghana. The crop was a major foreign exchange earner for Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s and in 1970 the country was the second largest producer in the world. But, following investments in the oil sector in the 1970s and 1980s, the country’s share of world output declined. In 2010, cocoa production accounted for only 0.3 per cent of agricultural GDP.Average cocoa beans production in Nigeria between 2000 and 2010 was 389,272 tonnes per year, rising from 170,000 tonnes produced in 1999.
How cocoa became king of crops in South-West
History has it that the earliest cocoa farms in Nigeria were in Bonny and Calabar in the 1870s, but the area was discovered to be unsuitable for cultivation.
“In 1880, a cocoa farm was established in Lagos. Later, more farms were established in Agege and Ota. From the farms in Agege and Ota information got to the Yoruba in the hinterland about cocoa farming. Thereafter, the planting of the tree expanded in Western Nigeria. Farmers in Ibadan and Egba land began experimenting with planting cocoa in uncultivated forests in 1890 and those in Ilesa started around 1896. The planting of cocoa later spread to Okeigbo and Ondo, both in Ondo State; Ife and Gbongan in Osun State and also in Ekitiland. Before 1950, there were two main varieties of cocoa planted in Nigeria. The major one was the Amelonado cacao which was imported from the upper Amazon river Basin in Brazil. The second was a heterogeneous strain from Trinidad. The Amelonado pods are green but turning yellow when ripe while the Trinidad variety is red.
As time passed by, the game changed, yielding new leading powers in cocoa production in Nigeria. The major states that produce cocoa are Ondo, Cross River, Ogun, Akwa Ibom, Edo, Ekiti, Delta, Osun and Oyo.
Poor govt attitude to cocoa farming
The Cocoa farmers’ body in the country, under the auspices of the Cocoa Farmers Association of Nigeria, is not happy with the way the government handles the crop. They alleged that the attitude of the government towards bringing back the old glory of cocoa farming and business in the country was not encouraging.
Recently, they accused the Federal Ministry of Agriculture of procuring substandard agricultural inputs for the farmers.
Also speaking with our correspondent, the National Secretary of the association, Mr. Adeola Adegoke, lamented that some of the inputs allegedly procured by the ministry did more harm than good to the crop, particularly fungicide, which he said had destroyed their cocoa trees and farms.
He blamed the ministry for not consulting the farmers before taking steps on the issues that concern them (farmers). According to him, the procurement of agric inputs should first be discussed with the farmers in order to know their demand and specification for their produce for better harvest.
The CFAN national scribe noted that several letters had been written by the association to the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe, on the matter but there was no response from him.
To this end, the group called on President Muhammadu Buhari to stop the procurement.
Adegoke stated, “ We want Mr. President to realise that most of the inputs procured in the past, including jute bags, solo sprayer pumps, fungicide and insecticides, were rejected by the cocoa farmers as a result of their low standard while those farmers that used part of them regretted their actions because of the negative impact on their farms. “We strongly appeal to Mr. President to look into the matter urgently to save cocoa farmers from untimely death due to the havoc caused by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.”
In spite of the challenge, however, Adegoke said the association had been doing its best to sensitise and educate the farmers in the country on the modern methods of cocoa for the purpose of achieving better quality.
But the Buhari administration has also said that it is making efforts to revitalise the sector. Early this year, for instance, it inaugurated a committee on the re-launch of cocoa programmes to ensure that the country move from its current position of number seven in world cocoa production to the number one position. At the event held in Abuja, Ogbe had said that it was a shame that Nigeria, which was a major producer of cocoa in the world, had gone down he larder. According to a report, he asked the committee to involve all stakeholders in their plans, “ adding that as they proceed in the task, they should remember the country’s past mistakes in the oil and gas sector where the country misused the opportunity to create jobs and wealth for the citizens.”
The committee chaired by the Director Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, Dr. Peter Aikpokpodion, is made up of some directors of the ministry, president and secretary Farmers Commodities Association of Nigeria and the director, planning and policy co-ordination of the ministry to serve as member and secretary.
The Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, also recently appealed to development partners and stakeholders in cocoa farming to join hands with the Federal Government to revitalise cocoa production.
At the first International Cocoa Summit held in Abuja, with the theme,’ Cocoa, A Strategic Commodity for National Economic Development’, he said the government wanted to come up with an action plan to boost cocoa revolution as part of the effort to diversify the economy.
Expressing the hope that foreign and domestic consumption of cocoa would make a lot of difference, he said, “It’s a source of medicine to health challenges such as diabetes cancer and high blood pressure.”
A report on the project indicated that the minister called on cocoa farmers to avail themselves of the new technologies and innovation available to improve their products to be able to compete at both local and international markets.
“There is a new dawn now for partnership and support to revive its lost glory,” Enelamah said.
While the President of the Cocoa Association of Nigeria, Sayima R. Riman, expressed delight at the initiative, stakeholders are, however, still awaiting radical actions to get the revitalisation dream activated.
Beyond that, it has been a game of vicissitudes for Nigeria as far as the cocoa issue is concerned. Its cocoa production dropped by 5.2 per cent from 248,000 metric tonnes in the 2013/2014 planting season to 235,000 metric tonnes in the 2014/2015 season, according to information gathered from stakeholders in the cocoa value chain.
Such concerned people had expected an increase to about 350,000 metric tonnes for the 2014/2015 season following the distribution of improved seedlings by the Federal Government with a target to increase yield and make the country the largest producer of cocoa in Africa before the year 2020, and to develop a globally competitive manufacturing industry around the Nigerian cocoa bean.
Cocoa is currently the country’s leading agricultural export, while Nigeria is the world’s fourth largest producer of the commodity after Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Ghana, and third largest exporter after Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Analysts noted that cocoa prices in the international market had risen but that supply would be a major challenge for producers in the coming years due to increasing demand.
The Federal Government, during the last administration, had targeted a yearly increase that would raise production to around 700,000 metric tonnes this year and one million metric tonnes in 2020 by distributing early-maturing, high-yielding and disease-resistant beans that mature in about 18 months to farmers to replace seedlings with four to five years maturity rate.
“We have distributed more than 140 million seedlings of high-yielding cocoa varieties to recapitalise the cocoa plantations, because they are old. That will give us a yield of almost five times. By 2020, Nigeria should be certainly in the one million metric tonnes cocoa production club,” the former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, had said in 2014.