Cocoa is Uganda’s fourth largest export after coffee, tea and fish. Since its introduction in the 1970s, cocoa cultivation has remained a major crop in Bundibugyo, Mukono and Luweero districts. But there is growing interest.
According to Job Chemutai Alunga, a cocoa breeder at the Kituuza station of the National Coffee Research Institute (NaCORI) in Mukono district, non-traditional areas such as Kibale, Busoga, Hoima, Koboko, Arua and Pader are are started in cocoa cultivation due to sustained promotion efforts.
Since fiscal year 2013/14, the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) has distributed over 20 million cocoa plants contributing to the 9% increase in cocoa production.
Chemutai says the biggest challenge has always been the lack of access to quality seedlings as well as the declining yields in Bundibugyo where there is a large population of older trees. In addition, it has led to an accumulation of diseases.
Chemutai explains that cocoa is an important cash crop because it can last between 50 and 80 years with the first commercial production after six years.
Up to 450 trees can be planted on an acre at a 3×3 meter spacing. Under ideal growing conditions, each plant should produce between three and four kilograms of dry cocoa. With a kilogram of dry beans at the market price of Shs 7,000, a farmer can earn a minimum of Shs 9.4 million per season.
Although the peak period is between April and July and October to December, even during the dry period, farmers can still harvest.
“With cocoa, there is a continuous cash flow. This is an important aspect of eradicating poverty, ”says Chemutai.
Cocoa is a sloth crop with a low cost of production. Recommended management practices include pruning, weed control, and removal of diseased plants.
Cocoa should be transplanted after about four months.
Preferred parent trees should be vigorous and healthy. The plant should be planted in the center of the pit, not too deep.
The natural habitat of the cocoa tree is located at altitudes up to 1200 m above sea level with annual rainfall of 1000 mm to 2000 mm and a wide range of soil types with a pH of 4, 5 to 8.0 with an optimum of 6.5 to 7.0.
Alice Nambuya, explains that in the management of cocoa plants, it is necessary to take into account the shade of the trees. She notes that during the sowing period the cocoa needs around 50 percent shade and later the shade requirement is around 40 percent.
“Without shade trees you can’t get far. If cocoa is overexposed to drought conditions, it experiences dieback which shortens the life of the tree, ”she says. Dieback is a condition in which a cocoa plant begins to die from the tips of its leaves towards the rear due to a harsh environment. The recommended shade trees in Uganda are musizi trees.
Nambuya recommends pruning and weed control as necessary practices. “Because cocoa is a perennial crop, it is important to manage weeds to avoid competition for nutrients,” she says.
Pruning, which takes place twice a year after harvest, promotes a tree structure that allows sunlight to filter through to the main branches and trunk to stimulate flowering and facilitate harvesting.
Nambuya says fan branches should be limited to three or four to allow more light penetration and decrease humidity in the canopy.
All low branches, old and diseased branches, and branches growing in the center of the canopy should be removed. All pruned branches and leaves should be left in the field to rot, except the sick.
Integrated weed management practices include weeding when the plants are three to four years old. When plants establish a canopy, she recommends ring-weeding around the plant and pruning the rest of the garden. At a younger stage, intercropping with bananas is recommended to ensure food security.
Nambuya advises against the use of herbicides as they adversely affect the health of the soil. “Soils exposed to herbicides tend to harden, which destroys the life underneath,” she explains. Nambuya adds that the soils should be amended using organic fertilizers such as manure compost and mulching if necessary.
Charles Kabole, a pest and disease expert, however, warns farmers to be on the lookout for losses caused by pests and diseases. Pests and diseases, Kabole says, can cause crop losses of up to 60 percent of the crop. Cocoa is attacked by pests such as mealybugs which colonize tender parts of the plant such as shoots, terminal buds, flowers and pods.
Tea mosquitoes develop circular, water-soaked spots around the feeding bites, causing the pods to warp.
Flat plant larvae that focus on sucking sap from flowers, shoots and pods cause sooty mold fungi to develop on the leaves and pods.
Aphids, which normally attack on hot days or immediately after the rainy season, cause flowers to drop prematurely and leaf curl.
Cocoa is also exposed to non-insect pests such as monkeys, squirrels, mole rats, baboons, and humans, especially school children and pregnant women.
But cocoa is also exposed to diseases such as seedling blight, black pod rot, stem canker, Cherelle wilt borers and stem borers.
Post harvest treatment
Cocoa pods take between 150 and 170 days from pollination to reach the harvest stage. The stage of maturity is visible by the color change of the pods from green to yellow and from red to yellow.
Improper post-harvest handling can cause mold or germination of cocoa beans, compromising the quality of the cocoa through possible contamination with mycotoxins and unwanted flavors.
Nambuya explains that pods should be harvested preferably with a knife, panga, pruning shears (are simple hand tools), or by twisting, to avoid injuring the tree.
Then the pods should be broken off using a wooden log to prevent damage to the beans. The beans should then be collected in a clean container making sure that any underripe or diseased beans are discarded.
Fermentation is a critical post-harvest process in cocoa production as it is responsible for flavor development. Fermentation completes drying.
Joseph Mulindwa, a food scientist at NaCORI explains that box fermentation, unlike the traditional heap fermentation process which uses a combination of banana leaves and polythene bag, is ideal for small farmers who harvest around 40 to 60 kilograms. The fermentation box has the advantage of turning by hand, an activity according to scientists is easily adoptable at the household level.
When using the fermentation box, Mulindwa advises farmers to consider other good practices such as removing diseased seeds and placenta in order to obtain high quality seeds.
Although the fermentation box is placed on a platform, it should also be kept in a clean shelter. “As a general rule, the temperature should be regulated during fermentation. This requires avoiding direct exposure to the sun, ”he says.
A shelter, he adds, has added value by minimizing cocoa theft.
The production of the fermentation boxes is still at research level with prototypes being tested with some farmers who want changes including wooden mixers which they say don’t last long.
Mixing is very important to manage aeration and prevent rot. The routine is repeated every 24 hours until the beans turn purple to brown for about 4-8 days. Naro scientists are now working on the implementation of mixing materials with food grade metals.
For large farmers and bulk carriers who need large volumes, crates remain the preferred fermentation method.
After fermentation, Mulindwa recommends slow drying in the sun. Fermented cocoa beans have a moisture content of between 55 and 69 percent. The moisture content of well-dried beans is about 6 to 7 percent.
The cleaned beans should be wrapped in burlap bags and kept on a raised platform of wooden planks for storage.
The added value targeting the extraction of high added value products from cocoa is key for the researchers at Kituuza. Mulindwa says farmers working in cooperatives can increase their income by selling intermediate products. The researchers tested products such as butter and cocoa powder.
Naro effectively extracted cocoa butter which is used to make lip balms and is a base for beauty products such as lotions.
At the research level, experts have been able to make alcoholic wine from cocoa juice.
Mulindwa explains that all a farmer needs is a fermentation tank and some yeast to start it up instead of letting the juice run out as is the practice during fermentation.
Plant cocoa trees at the start of the rainy season.
Pick a day when the ground is wet and the sky is cloudy.
Plant the young cocoa trees around 6 months old.
A few days before planting, fill in the holes you have dug.
At the bottom of the hole put the soil you dug from above, and on top put the soil you dug from below.
You can mix the soil with manure.
When cocoa trees have grown, they need less shade.
You should gradually give them less and less shade.
You should prune tall trees and cut branches that cast too much shade.
When the plantation is well maintained, you can cut down all the large trees.