Farmers Fight Declining Yields

Cocoa farmers in Papua New Guinea are fighting pests and declining yields with advanced techniques and training.

Cocoa farmer, Ray Kwingu worriedly said: “One of my kids left school because we could not pay the school fees. The school fees for another kid studying in secondary school is still to be paid, and we need to settle it soon.”

Ray, a 63-year-old father of five from the Varigu village in East Sepik Province, has less than 0.5 hectares of cocoa garden as his sole source of income. He and his wife, Jenny, work hard to make sure this cocoa garden with its 300 trees pays for their kids’ school fees, medical bills and nutritious food for their family.

Despite their best efforts, their cocoa garden yields less and less over the years, challenging Ray and Jenny to find other ways to cover their household’s basic needs or to cut back on them, like taking their kids out of school.

The FAO-led, European Union-funded programme for Support to Rural Entrepreneurship, Investment and Trade (EU-STREIT) is helping to build the capacity of rural communities to increase cocoa production and improve livelihoods.

 The programme focused on providing farmers with better-yielding cocoa seedlings that had been naturally cloned through bud grafting. A natural technique that allows replication of seedlings with desirable qualities, grafting is the act of placing a portion of one plant onto the stem or branch of a rootstock in such a way that it will continue to grow.

Then the rootstock is replaced by the grafted “clone” (bud) and transplanted in the cocoa garden.

Not only are these seedlings better yielding, but they are also more tolerant to the cocoa pod borer pest.

Since 2013, the Sepik region has been invaded by this pest, leading to a significant drop in production of cocoa.

In 2013, total cocoa production in the region was more than 12 000 tons, whereas in 2016, production had been reduced to less than 9 000 tons. The invasion of the cocoa pod borer has forced farmers to abandon infested cocoa trees, leading to the closing of 58 percent of cocoa seed processing factories in the area.

Ray and other farmers not only received these new resilient inputs, they also received training in this bud grafting technique so that they could continue this work once the programme ends.

Cloning seedlings through bud grafting allows farmers to rehabilitate their farms, cutting down old cocoa trees and replacing them with these grafted ones that are less at risk of a cocoa pod borer infestation.  

“The new seedlings and skills allow me to expect an increased cocoa production, and with that increased income, I can transform the living conditions of my family,” explains Ray.

Since joining the programme, Ray has rehabilitated 300 cocoa trees through budding and grafting cocoa seedlings.

“Before enrolling in the programme, I had no idea how to bud cocoa clone seedlings, how to conduct block management, including cocoa pruning, field lining, shade control, disease management, harvesting or how to dry and store cocoa beans properly.”

Ray intends to triple his garden by planting an additional 600 cocoa pest-tolerant seedlings.  

The EU-STREIT programme focuses on providing support throughout the entire cocoa value chain from its cultivation to the semi-processing and marketing of cocoa products.

“In order to realise transformational changes at the institutional level in PNG, the programme is addressing agri-value chain issues in the country. It provides both direct support to beneficiaries and advisory and analytical assistance to the government to improve policy and create a business-enabling environment,” summarizes Xuebing Sun, Coordinator for the EU-STREIT programme in PNG.

Cocoa is the third most significant agricultural crop in terms of its economic importance to Papua New Guinea and contributes over K300 million (approximately USD 100 million) to the Gross Domestic Product annually.

About 151 000 households (representing over 2 million people) in the coastal regions of the country depend on cocoa as a main cash crop and the success of cocoa production hugely affects livelihoods in the country’s rural areas.

Ray is just one of 696 farmers in the Maprik district supported by the programme in partnership with the national, provincial and local institutions. The programme implements similar activities in nine other districts in the East Sepik and Sandaun (West Sepik) provinces. It also works on improving the value chains for vanilla and fish, other important products for the island’s Sepik region.

Like other Small Island Developing States, the country faces many challenges, from the increasing impacts of climate change to geographic limitations on agricultural resources and difficulties in accessing markets.

For a long time, public and private sector actors have been searching for effective solutions to address these challenges in agriculture.

The EU-STREIT programme focuses on providing these solutions by improving farmers’ access to information and financial tools and further enhancing the performance of the country’s existing institutions through assessments and capacity strengthening.

By increasing the economic returns and opportunities from the cocoa, vanilla and fishery value chains, the EU-STREIT programme supports the sustainable and inclusive economic development of rural communities in PNG, ultimately helping Ray, Jenny and their fellow farmers provide for their families.

Marysilla Kellerton