EBOLOWA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters) – As Cameroon’s cocoa and coffee farmers struggle with difficult environmental conditions and global competition, an information scheme introduced a year ago using mobile phone text messaging is helping them cope with the effects of climate change and find fair prices for their crops.
“Cocoa and coffee market price update for the month of July 2013 ... A kilogramme of dried cocoa this month sells at 913 fcfa (Central African CFA francs, about $1.90) and a kilogramme of dried Arabica coffee sells at 460 fcfa ($0.96)” reads the message on Alphonse Ndongo’s mobile phone.
Ndongo, a 48-year-old farmer in Ebolowa, in Cameroon’s South region, checks his mobile phone regularly to get news on the latest market price for his crop.
Farmers say their telephones are no longer just gadgets for making and receiving calls, but an essential tool to learn new farming methods, update their skills, cope with the effects of climate change and boost production and sales.
“There will be heavy rains in the South region throughout the day tomorrow,” reads an SMS weather update. Other news dispatches, sent to farmers’ mobile phones on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, include messages on climate resistant crop varieties and new marketing standards.
According to Ndongo, the information is improving farmers’ livelihoods by making new and interesting ideas easily available.
“This permits me to plan when to harvest and where to sell my crops, and at what price,” said Ndongo, who said he takes along his telephone to the farm each day, particularly to check changing market prices for the crops he grows.
The use of mobile telephones for education and market information updates is rapidly gaining ground in Africa and in Cameroon in particular. Cameroon’s government believes it offers opportunities for the country’s cocoa and coffee farmers to adjust better to changing climatic conditions and to boost their production and sales.
Cameroon’s mobile phone information system for farmers was introduced in June 2012 by the National Cocoa and Coffee Board (NCCB) and the Cameroon Cocoa and Coffee Inter-Professional Board (known by its French acronym, CICC) to help stabilise the internal cocoa and coffee market and help farmers improve the quality and quantity of their product.
In partnership with MTN, a mobile telephone company, the cocoa and coffee board introduced SMS messaging to relay changes in market prices and climate change news to farmers.
“Cocoa and coffee buying agents who used to take advantage of our ignorance and buy our products at very cheap prices on the grounds of falling world market prices no longer have their way because thanks to the use of telephones, we are now well informed,” said Mary Ahonge, a coffee farmer in Ebolowa.
COPING WITH CHANGING WEATHER
Many farmers in the key cocoa-producing regions of the Southwest and South of Cameroon are struggling to cope with prolonged rains that affect the drying of cocoa beans and also make it hard for them to transport their products to market along mostly earthen roads.
Poor harvests and sales hurt not only farmers’ incomes but also the government’s export earnings from cocoa and coffee.
A 17 percent drop in cocoa production in the 2011-2012 season, to 220,000 tonnes compared to 264,000 tonnes the previous season, has threatened Cameroon’s position as one of Africa’s largest cocoa producers, after Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria.
Since June, farmers also have been alerted to the need to start certifying their cocoa to meet new international requirements.
“From 2015 no uncertified cocoa will be accepted in the international market, and our farmers need to be well sensitized on this,” said Michael Ndoping, NCCB director, at an international workshop on cocoa certification in the city of Douala in June this year.
The government’s Institute for Research and Agricultural Development (IRAD) and the Cocoa Development Corporation (SODECAO) use SMS messaging to give farmers information on hybrid species of cocoa that are resistant to diseases that are worsening as result of changing weather conditions.
“The new species are particularly better resistant to black pod and capsids diseases, the main scourge of cocoa in Cameroon,” said IRAD research officer Celestine Nkuo. She added that they can produce two to three times as large a crop as traditional varieties after just 18 months, where the old species need five to six years to yield fruit.
The mobile phone information plan faces some challenges. Receiving SMS messages is free of charge, but farmers must pay if they want to call back for further information. Persistent electric power failures also can prevent them from keeping their phones charged.
Nevertheless, the government says that the scheme has stimulated cocoa production, with a 4 percent increase to almost 229,000 tonnes in 2012-13.
According to Cameroon’s minister of commerce and trade, Luc Magoire Mbarga, the increase is evidence of the programme’s success and puts the country on track to meeting the government’s target of producing 600,000 tonnes of cocoa annually by 2020.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.