The Missing Ingredient to Boost Cocoa Farmers’ Production

A field officer from Mars inspects a cocoa nursery in Tarengge, Indonesia.

May 30, 2017 by Leo Tobias and Peter van Grinsven

Last week, an agronomist stood in a field of cocoa in Indonesia trying to make our latest mobile agricultural platform fail.  

He selected dozens of hypothetical combinations of variables such as tree spacing and soil quality, but the program consistently delivered what it was built to create: highly personalized farm plans for smallholder cocoa farmers.

Of course, the agronomists were testing a new digital program for us, one designed to help cocoa farmers boost their production and income.  Building off of Mars’ existing Farm Development Plan, the new Digital Cocoa Farm Development Plans are personalized, robust and detailed. They look out seven years or more to firmly embed farmers in the highest value, sustainably certified cocoa supply chains. 

The digital farm development plan is the result of intense collaboration among Grameen Foundation, which specializes in digital solutions to end poverty, and Mars and UTZ, the world’s biggest cocoa buyer and certifier of sustainability, respectively. The three partners are uniquely suited to the task, given Mars’ extensive knowledge of cocoa agronomy and farmer behavior; UTZ’ certification products that promote sustainability and market access; and Grameen Foundation’s deep expertise in mobile solutions for smallholder farmers. The result is a program that creatively works with farmers’ goals and constraints to ensure a brighter future for their families.

Now being piloted in Indonesia and Ghana, the program promises to benefit tens of millions of smallholder cocoa farmers and family members.  Indonesia’s one million cocoa farmers are the third biggest producers of the crop in the world, but most live on just $2 a day.  West Africa’s cocoa farmers similarly live in poverty, and rely on cocoa for 60 to 90 percent of their income. But aging trees, soil infertility, pests and disease all add up to low yielding farms and low incomes.

Consequently, as the global demand for chocolate increases, demand for cocoa is rapidly outstripping supply. We need to make cocoa profitable and sustainable, for the farmer and the consumer, and fast.

That’s where our mobile app suite comes in, bringing precision agriculture to smallholder farmers. Used by field agents or trained “cocoa doctors,” it not only gives farmers information about how to improve their farms, it uses vast amounts of locally collected data to create a highly personalized plan for each farmer. Data is the secret ingredient to empowering farmers to boost their output and lift themselves and their families out of poverty. 

While buyers and field agents have been collecting farm data for years, this is the first time this information is flowing back to farmers, enabling them to confidently map out the future of their farms. Each farm plan lays out what activities and investments must be made on a monthly basis for at least the next seven years to boost cocoa production, as well as the potential costs. It provides a profit/loss report to the farmer that clearly shows the annualized returns on any investment. It includes recommendations on how to achieve certification through an organization like UTZ, which will enable the farmer to get the best price for their cocoa.

With a detailed calendar of when to plant, prune, fertilize and harvest their trees, farmers have the information they need to get the most out of every hectare they farm. This is crucial for smallholders.  By definition, they do not have vast areas to cultivate. In order to support their families and build their assets, they must grow high quality, high yielding cocoa on their small farms. Additionally, higher yields per hectare mean that less rainforest is cleared for production, preserving the environment.

Most struggling cocoa farmers cultivate older trees that bear less fruit and are highly susceptible to mold, pests and disease. With smart investments in new trees and fertilizer, and the adaptation of good farming practices, farmers can potentially triple or quadruple their cocoa production and achieve certification. 
Mars and other major cocoa buyers have committed to sustainably sourcing 100 percent of their cocoa by 2020. Certifying organizations such as UTZ use the digitally collected data to ensure that farm practices are sustainable and follow fair labor practices. This electronic data can also be shared with other certifying bodies, limiting the amount of time farmers need to spend providing data and completing application processes.

With the data collected for the personalized farm plans, it is also easier for financial institutions to assess farmers’ credit-worthiness, and design appropriate lending products for eligible farmers. Taking out a small agricultural loan can be a necessary first step for a farming family to move beyond struggle and into security.

In the Sulawesi pilot, Mars alone will initially enroll 1,200 farmers.  Meanwhile, its suppliers will likewise empower their farmers with the digital farm plans.  Mars will also roll out the program in several countries in West Africa and Latin America, reaching even more farmers.

The Digital Cocoa Farm Development Plan is designed to increase productivity of high quality cocoa from just 0.5 metric tons per hectare to 2.00 metric tons or more in Indonesia and Latin America, and to 1.5 metric tons in West Africa. Such increases will greatly boost the financial security of farming families, improve the sustainability of smallholders’ farms, and provide a secure supply of cocoa for chocolate lovers everywhere.

Leo Tobias is Director, Technology and Product, Grameen Foundation. Peter van Grinsven is Cocoa Development Director, Mars Singapore.