Crop diversity can sweeten the deal for African cocoa farmers

Diversification of crops in cocoa agroforestry systems could be a win-win solution.
A cocoa plantation in Ghana. Rebecca Bollwitt photo

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The video is fittingly bittersweet.

In a short film now making the rounds on the Internet, a journalist for Dutch television visits cocoa plantations in Cote d’Ivoire, bringing chocolate bars to local cocoa farmers who in spite of their livelihoods have never tasted chocolate before.

One farmer takes a piece and quickly puts it in his mouth.

“It’s nice,” he coos. “I didn’t know it was so yummy!”

The video is a reminder of the power of chocolate — and of the fact that it is a luxury out of reach of the farmers who harvest its core ingredient.

But with global demand for chocolate rising — thanks in part to a surge in consumption in Asia — there is growing concern for those smallholder farmers, as most of the chocolate we so covet comes from them: Small family-owned farms produce up to 90 percent of the world’s supply of cocoa.

More than two-thirds of that comes from West and Central Africa, where this cash crop has driven economic growth.

There is a dark side to cocoa production in this region, though. Farmers have struggled to cope with fluctuating cocoa prices in the wake of economic liberalization policies in these countries that had helped to stabilize cocoa prices and buffer these farmers from volatile global markets.

New research is pointing to a potential solution: encouraging smallholders to increase the value of their cocoa systems and the income they derive from them not by intensifying their crops, but by diversifying them. This enables farmers to take advantage of growing demand among growing urban populations in their own countries for timber and for non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and integrating carefully selected tree species into their cocoa agroforestry systems.

“It is a win-win-win option,” said Denis Sonwa, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who led the study into cocoa agroforestry systems in West and Central Africa.

“The producers could greatly increase their income from the timber and NTFPs they could harvest; domestic economies would benefit; and there are environmental benefits because of the ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, which biodiverse cocoa agroforests perform.”

Any measures that broaden the basket of crops produced in these farmers’ cocoa systems can help minimize both market and ecological risks, while increasing their income from non-cocoa products, Sonwa said.


The authors assessed the situation in Africa’s four main cocoa-producing countries — Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. But among the four, not all cocoa is created equally.

Stands of monocrop “cocoa orchards” represent the prevailing smallholder cocoa system in Côte d’Ivoire, where the crop has had negative effects on biodiversity and the environment. In Central Africa, however, smallholders often cultivate cocoa in mixed agroforests, which can have as many as 60 different non-cocoa tree species. Aside from cocoa, such tree-crop systems produce timber and a diverse assortment of non-timber forest products, including medicines, fruits, nuts, oils, and important nutritional condiments.

Over the years, researchers and extension officers have tended to propose a specific bouquet of tree species suitable for integration into cocoa agroforests

Joan Baxter

This is the model, according to Sonwa, that researchers, policymakers and producer groups should emulate and improve throughout West and Central Africa. The study found that to date, these components of cocoa agroforests have not been fully exploited and that there is a need for farmers to select tree species based not just on local conditions but also domestic and international market demand for the non-cocoa products. It also found that with the reduction of natural forests in recent decades, particularly in West Africa, and the growing demand for timber and NTFPs, there is an opportunity for cocoa producers to benefit by shifting production in their agroforests.

“If we no longer have forests that provide these important products, then we need to make sure that what was previously forest landscape becomes cocoa landscape, with many of the same forest resources,” he said.

The study also cites research showing that the value of some of the “byproducts” harvested from cocoa agroforests, particularly in Cameroon, can be remarkable.

For example, the annual net return per hectare on products from just five species of trees in cocoa agroforests in southern Cameroon — safou fruit from Dacryodes edulis; the nutritious condiment njansang from Ricinodendron heudelotii; palm oil and palm wine from Elaeis guineensis; avocadoes; oranges; and mandarins — was estimated at USD405. The return per hectare on the cocoa: USD256. The value of the njansang aloneis USD151, more than half the value of the cocoa.


Over the years, researchers and extension officers have tended to propose a specific bouquet of tree species suitable for integration into cocoa agroforests, and there has been a special push for some timber and fruit trees, Sonwa said. The trees need to be compatible with cocoa by helping to provide a suitable microclimate with not too much shade or competition for soil moisture.

However, the study found that these species — and others that farmers tend to prefer to integrate in their cocoa systems — are not necessarily the ones that are actually present; there is some spontaneous growth and unplanned biodiversity in many cocoa agroforests. Further, species that provide products for which there is a growing market demand are also not prevalent in cocoa systems.

The authors concluded that while it is important to keep an eye on the market when selecting trees for cocoa agroforests, there also a need to actively promote the development and management of cocoa agroforests. So while farmers should respond to the growing demand for specific timber and NTFPs, they should also include species that satisfy household needs for home consumption, perform important ecosystem services and preserve indigenous biodiversity, the study recommended.

For more information about this research, please contact Denis Sonwa at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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