YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AlertNet) - Cocoa farmers in southwest Cameroon, where cocoa quality has for years suffered as a result of unusually heavy rains, now have some good news: The government has announced a plan to dry cocoa beans with renewable energy.
Heavy rain in the Southwest region of Cameroon over the last three years has seriously slowed the drying of cocoa beans, affecting the quality of cocoa produced, according to officials of the National Cocoa and Coffee Board (NCCB).
That has hurt farmer incomes because lower quality cocoa brings a lower price, said Michael Ndoping, director general of the board.
Cameroon is the world's fifth largest cocoa producer and the Southwest region, where the rainy season can last for nine or 10 months, accounts for more than 70 percent of the nation's production. But increasingly heavy rain has made drying cocoa beans more and more difficult, pushing the crop's water content above 15 percent, well above the 8 percent generally required by international buyers.
"The heavy and prolonged rains means there's little sunshine and the cocoa beans take much longer to get dry. The farmers are thus obliged to use locally made firewood ovens built with mud bricks which most often burn the beans because of overheat, thus leading to low quality products," Ndoping said.
SOLAR AND BIOGAS DRYING
However a process to revolutionize cocoa drying by using passive solar and biogas energy is in the making. According to Cameroon's minister of trade, Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, the government is supporting an initiative by Women for Green Growth (WGG), a local civil society organization, that aims to develop a sustainable cocoa-drying method based on renewable technology.
The innovative process would use low-cost passive solar energy to slowly dry the beans, and biogas to provide supplemental drying, said Martha Molinge, a WGG member.
Biogas energy is already well developed in some African countries such as Mali, where it provides a large share of the country's energy.
"The technology is going to boost the incomes of cocoa farmers not only in Cameroon but all over the globe where cocoa is produced, especially in Africa," Molinge predicted. She said she was particularly happy the initiative had come from a women's group, which might persuade more women to get involved in a traditionally male-dominated economic activity.
The new technology is capable of solving several environmental and agro-processing problems simultaneously, Molinge said. Traditionally, millions of tons of cocoa are dried on wood fires, with three to five tons of firewood needed to dry each ton of cocoa, according to a WGG study.
This use of firewood is a major but often unacknowledged factor in widespread deforestation in the major cocoa growing regions in West and Central Africa. The proposed new technology could reduce firewood consumption and deforestation, as well as reducing pollution and smoke from wood fires.
The technology could have wide reach. Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, other leading cocoa producers, also have seen their quality and quantity of cocoa plummet due to heavy rains, according to a report from Cameroon's ministry of agriculture.
In Cameroon, cocoa exports for the 2009-2010 year, through August, were 162 tons, down from 169 tons in the same period last year.
Cocoa prices have risen on the world market over the last two years, but producers need to dry their beans to reap the benefit, agricultural officials said. In Cameroon, a kilo of dried cocoa sells for three times what it did three years ago.
Farmers still face other problems, however. Even well-dried cocoa faces increasing difficulties getting to the market capital of Douala along rain-drenched roads.
"The heavy rains have rendered the state of the mostly earth roads impassible, with trucks taking over four days to get to the warehouse in Douala," said Charles Makoge, a farmer based in Tombel, in the country's Southwest province, and head of the Tombel Farmers' Cooperative Union.
During the journey, dried cocoa beans are often soaked and have to be re-dried on arrival to meet market standards, raising the costs to producers and lowering their income, Makoge said.
As in interim measure, Cameroon's National Cocoa and Coffee Board has announced plans to construct 20,000 modern wood-fired drying ovens in Southwest province. The ovens, which use less firewood than traditional cocoa drying ovens, will have heat regulation to avoid burning the beans.
Ndoping said about 5,000 farmers have received training in sustainable management of the new ovens.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.