KUMBA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the world's fifth-largest cocoa producer, Cameroon should be reaping the benefits of the growing global appetite for high-quality chocolate.
But farmers in Konye, in the country's southwest, are struggling to support themselves as unusually harsh weather takes a big bite out of their cocoa income.
In recent years, prolonged and persistent rains during harvesting season have made it difficult for cocoa farmers in the area to properly dry their beans before taking them to market.
Grade A beans should have less than 5 percent moisture content, according to the agriculture non-governmental organisation Citizens' Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC). The higher the moisture content, the less a farmer can charge for his produce.
And with the rains in Cameroon lasting longer than usual, farmers find they need more time to dry their beans - often more time than they can afford.
High moisture levels in cocoa from Konye - one of the biggest cocoa-producing areas of the country - are "forcing them to sell their produce at a much cheaper rate," Maxwell Ebong, a member of the Konye Farmers' Cooperative (KONAFCOOP), told Thomson Reuters at a cocoa producers meeting in Kumba.
"The farmers cannot get their cocoa completely dry and this is a big problem," he said.
Cocoa is grown in four of Cameroon's 10 regions, with the southwest accounting for 60 percent of national output. In the 2010-11 season, the country hit a record of 240,000 tonnes. After a slip in 2011-12 due to attacks by pests and diseases, output is expected to reach around 235,000 tonnes in the current season, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
But while farmers are growing more cocoa than they have in previous years, the poorer quality of their produce means they make less money than they used to.
According to Benard Njonga, president of the ACDIC, the drying period for cocoa beans in a wood fire oven - the more common method in Cameroon's southwest - is usually 3-4 days, while sun-dried cocoa needs 7-8 days to dry.
"Normally all grade A cocoa beans should be dried for at least a week," he said.
But farmers in Konye and other parts of Cameroon's southwest say the unusually heavy rains, which experts link to climate change, mean their drying periods go over two weeks, and still their beans are left with high moisture content.
With their children's school fees and other costs to cover, farmers are often left with no choice but to go to market with lower quality beans.
"Sometimes we spend over two weeks on the oven because of rains that last for weeks," lamented Abraham Salle, a cocoa farmer in Konye. "This is too much labour, and still our product sells for less."
PREY FOR UNSCRUPULOUS BUYERS
Adding to their weather-related worries, KONAFCOOP members say cocoa farmers often fall prey to unscrupulous buying agents, who in recent years have been taking advantage of the lack of moisture-testing machines at the region's seven main sales units.
"Most of our farmers cannot read or write, much less ascertain the moisture content of their cocoa beans at the point of sale," Ebong said.
According to the National Cocoa and Coffee Board, which oversees the quality and pricing of cocoa in the country, a kilo of dried cocoa in Cameroon currently sells for between 1,180 CFA ($2.25) and 1,250 CFA ($2.40). But desperate farmers are often forced to accept significantly less for their beans.
"I sold 262 kg of cocoa last year at 262,000 CFA ($500) and was told my dried cocoa beans had over 15 percent moisture," said Konye farmer Njonguo John. "I had no choice but to accept because I needed money to send my children to school."
Harvesting of cocoa in the southwest region of Cameroon begins in late September, just as schools reopen for the academic year.
Like Njonguo, many of the over 8,000 farmers who belong to the Konye Cooperative have sold their cocoa partially dried and at a lower cost because they don't have the time to dry their beans thoroughly or the technology to argue for higher prices.
However, the region's cocoa farmers were recently given some relief when the not-for-profit SNV Netherlands Development Organisation and the Cameroon office of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture supplied them with seven moisture-content testing machines in August.
While the machines won't stop the rains, they will arm KONACOOP members with the information they need to be able to demand a fair price for their cocoa beans, experts say.
"With these machines the farmers will now know exactly the moisture content of their produce and will be able to bid a better price, unlike before when they were simply dictated to by buying agents," Ebong said.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Laurie Goering)
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