AKURE Nigeria (Reuters) - College graduate Omatayo Adeniyi stands in a humid tropical forest of southwest Nigeria and explains why he chose cocoa farming over a white collar job in the city.
“There is money in the ground. The future is bright. I hope to make one tonne of cocoa by next year,” he says from his farm in Ondo State.
Such optimism has for decades been rare among Nigeria’s cocoa farmers: Many abandoned their fields and moved to cities in search of alternative work after commodity prices collapsed in the mid-1980s and the country’s booming oil industry siphoned investment away from agriculture.
But years of focus on oil revenues has left Nigeria with a lack of industrial diversity and made it over-dependent on energy, which uses a lot of costly equipment but employs few people. So while the economy has been growing at an average of 7 percent for the past five years, it has failed to create jobs for many of Nigeria’s 170 million people.
High unemployment and poverty levels have prompted the government to look again at cocoa with the aim of getting more people to grow a product for which prices have been rising.
Adeniyi’s trees have been supplied by the government, which is also distributing plant pods and disease resistant seeds at subsidized rates, alongside cheap fertilisers, agricultural chemicals and training to improve practices.
Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina aims to boost production to 1 million tonnes a year by 2018 - on a par with current number two global producer Ghana and approaching top grower Ivory Coast’s projected 1.8 million tonnes for this year.
Nigeria says it’s already on track to produce 500,000 tonnes of cocoa next year, double what it grew in 2012, and though analysts say that target may be optimistic, it is clear that no other cocoa growing country is boosting production as fast.
Output from Africa’s top four growers - Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia and Nigeria - which makes up over 70 percent of global production, is projected to rise in 2013/14 after staying flat for two years, according to Africa’s Ecobank.
“Nigeria has been underperforming for many years because of a lack of investment and the discovery of oil. But in the last two years, there’s been genuine commitment ... to develop agriculture,” said Edward George, Ecobank head of research.
Nigeria currently grows cocoa on less than a quarter of the 3 million hectares of land suitable to produce the beans, and the government is encouraging farmers to expand to the uncultivated savannah grassland.
With the materials the state provides, crops are flourishing. Adeniyi received his high-yield disease-resistant seeds from government two years ago and planted 800 seedlings of which 700 survived - much more than usual. The new trees flower within 18-24 months instead of 3-5 years.
“The materials will increase output more than three times from what farmers had before,” said Leila Dongo, director at Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria.
However infrastructure still poses a problem - bad roads hamper the transport of beans to market - and many producers are at the mercy of the weather because of their rudimental operations.
In a leafy plantation where rows of cocoa trees sit three inches apart to let in air and sunshine, farmer Rafiu Saliu demonstrates the problem. Picking up a pod from a just-harvested heap he shows how most of it has gone black with fungal disease.
Farmers like Saliu rely on the whims of weather for growing and drying their crops. This year Saliu faced a dilemma: leave pods on trees until the rains pass, and risk them over ripening, or harvest them and risk mould levels exceeding the maximum 5 percent allowed on the market.
“If not for the rains we should be harvesting. All the pods are ripe,” said 65-year-old Saliu, as more dark clouds spread over his four hectare farm.
To tackle this vulnerability, the government is training farmers to set up warehousing and storage, including creating shared drying spaces covered with plastic sheets that let sun in but keep rain out.
When Nigeria’s government turned its back on the cocoa industry, it also scrapped the cocoa marketing board, a farmers’ cooperative that regulated farming practices, guaranteed prices to farmers, and provided subsidies through the cocoa board.
Farmers now bear the price risk themselves but have seen cocoa prices swing from a low of less than $1,000 per tonne in 1986 to a peak of $3,500 per tonne in 2011. This month cocoa is trading around $3,252 per tonne.
In Nigeria this year farmgate prices - the amount Saliu and Adeniyi will make on their beans before they go to the wider market - are around 450,000 naira ($2,779) per tonne - up 50 percent on last year. But that could fall quickly if as predicted a bumper West African crop depresses global prices.
So in an attempt to avoid a cycle of boom and bust, Nigeria is encouraging local processing and manufacturing enterprises.
Samuel Oyebade, head of the government’s cocoa reform plan in its main growing region Ondo State, told Reuters talks were afoot with U.S. chocolate manufacturer SPAGnVOLA to set up a chocolate factory in which the state would invest around 5 billion naira ($31 million) to build, while SPAGnVOLA would manage the production for export and some local consumption.
Nigeria’s beans have been deemed by the global market unsuitable for chocolate because of their high moisture content and so tend to be used more in cake, butter and soaps.
But with expert input from a U.S. chocolate expert their beans could yet make it to premium buyers, for premium prices.
“The industry says cocoa beans from Africa are inferior to those from South America and the Caribbean ... (but) it’s how you treat that beans that renders the flavor ... every single tree has the potential for producing fine flavor,” SPAGnVOLA Chief Executive Eric Reid told Reuters.
(1 US dollar = 162.1 naira)
Additional reporting by Marcy Nicholson in New York; Editing by Sophie Walker