By Daniel Edyegu
One lesson Mt. Elgon region coffee farmers have learnt from the unstable and declining coffee prices is the futility of relying on a single cash crop.
The importance of diversity is now clearer in their minds and as a result, they are slowly turning cocoa into a second cash crop as they seek for more alternatives.
Joab Keki in Namanyoyi sub-county, Mbale district has over 100,000 Arabica coffee trees on over 300 acres of land. But he says: “Arabica coffee is so delicate that a slight shortage in rainfall or disease outbreak can affect yields for the entire season. Any small problem and a huge loss is underway,” Keki said.
He made sh26m when coffee prices peaked in 2011 and a kilogramme of premium parchment traded at sh11,000. But the prices plummeted to sh5,500 per kilogramme the next year, slumping further to the current sh3,000 per kilo.
To keep a float he ventured into cocoa growing in 2012, starting out with 10,000 seedlings of the highly disease resistant Trinitario (red pods) and high yielding Upper Amazon varieties.
He says growing cocoa is not labour intensive and requires no major machinery in the farming process.
Harvesting and splitting the pods can be done with ordinary knives. The beans are put in ordinary hand woven baskets with only a container placed beneath to collect the juice. Thereafter, the beans are fermented for seven days and dried on tarpaulins.
“Coffee is labour intensive. I have to part with sh3,500 daily to pay casual labourers to pick the beans during the harvest season. Then the cherries are pulped. A quality pulping machine costs about sh1m. Fermentation follows, then the parchment is washed and dried. The parchment has to be de-husked to get the green beans for export. A de-husking machine costs more than sh1b,” Keki says.
“All this makes Arabica coffee tedious,” he says.
But Keki says he has not yet made a big cocoa sale, but is optimistic it will come soon.
“I am collecting the beans. I have already secured orders from the US to supply a tonne and we have negotiated each kilogramme of beans at sh6500,” he says.
The largest cocoa growers are Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia. The crop thrives under tree shades in areas with 1,500mm to 2,000mm of rainfall annually. It grows in countries lying between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south of the equator.
In Uganda, cocoa is mainly grown in the districts of Bundibugyo, Mukono, Kayunga, Jinja, Iganga, Mayuge, Buikwe and Masindi.
According to Keki, each tree yields about seven kilogrammes of coffee beans per season, which stretches from October to April. In 2012, Uganda produced 17,000 tonnes of cocoa beans that fetched $50m (about sh130b).
Esco Uganda, a cocoa export firm, purchases most of the cocoa beans produced locally at sh6,000 per kilogramme.
In Namanyonyi sub-county, Peace Kawomera Growers’ Cooperative, which brings together local farmers, is promoting cocoa cultivation. In 2012, it distributed seedling to 100 households.
“I have planted 114 cocoa trees on 25 acres along with 35000 coffee trees. I am planning to add more cocoa trees when I get money,” says Hakim Nywenjwe, 35, a beneficiary of cocoa seedlings from the cooperative society.
Cocoa is also paying off for Peter Mukone, who started growing it in 2007.
Mukone, a resident of Buyobo sub-county in Sironko district, explains that he does most of the tasks involved.
“I now have 3,400 cocoa trees on eight acres. I also have 4,500 Arabica coffee trees,” Mukone says.
“I also propagate seedlings for sale,” he adds.
Mukone harvests and processes cocoa every fortnight. When he collects substantial amounts, he transports it to the collection centre in Mayuge district where Esco finds it.
“I earn much more money from cocoa than coffee. I have sold out seedlings to about 360 households in Sironko and farmers are steadily taking to cocoa growing,” Mukone says.