Hardy gourmet pepper is thriving as long-time cash crops struggle, farmers say
PENJA, Cameroon, Feb 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Andrew Kombe is hard at work on his farm, pulling weeds and cutting other invasive plants on his 4 hectares (10 acres) of land.
“I have to work hard to reap good yields and make maximum gains from my new crop,” he says.
The 49-year-old farmer is getting ready to harvest Penja peppercorns. The crop is named for the village where he lives, but the fame of this aromatic white peppercorn – a favourite of gourmet chefs – has spread worldwide.
The pepper’s certification under African intellectual property laws – the name Penja can now be applied only to peppercorns from this area – has boosted its exclusivity and its price.
This has been a boon to thousands of hard-pressed farmers in the region who have seen their income from the more traditional cash crops of coffee and cocoa fall following a dire combination of heavy rains and severe drought, combined with a slump in prices on the international market.
For five years, Kombe said, he and his family endured hardship as their coffee harvest dwindled, and their income along with it.
“We were left with no choice (other) than switch to Penja pepper. Now with the pepper farming, I can raise enough money to feed my family and send my kids to school,” he said.
Afraid of continuing poor harvests and paltry income from coffee and cocoa, farmers in Penja and other nearby villages in Cameroon’s Southwest and Littoral regions are increasingly switching to peppercorns, a crop agricultural officials say is more lucrative, reliable and climate-friendly.
“The farmers now prefer to concentrate their efforts on Penja pepper that thrives well in the region,” said Amos Ngolle, an agriculture technician in the Moungo administrative division’s agricultural department.
The crop has gained national and international renown since 2013, when the Penja Pepper Farmers Association (PPFA), with support from the French Development Agency, obtained certification of its product from the African Intellectual Property Organisation.
The pepper is one of only three African commodities to be awarded such a label, which prohibits the product’s name from being used by producers outside of its original region.
The association’s farmers say the certification has transformed their lives and the economy of the region, attracting farmers whose other traditional cash crops are threatened by extreme weather.
“Growing Penja pepper has now become the attraction of farmers in the region,” said Emmanuel Nzenewo, PPFA executive secretary.
Nzenowo said the association ensures farmers adhere to strict quality standards, and that their farms are without the boundaries of the approved growing area.
“This has contributed to the continuous improved quality of the product,” he said.
Since certification, the price of the cooking spice has seen a nearly five-fold increase, from 2,500 CFA francs per kilogram before 2013 to 14,000 CFA francs ($27) per kilogram in 2015-2016, according to the ministry of trade.
“Because of the encouraging price per kilo, I have expanded my farm from 8 hectares (20 acres) in 2012 to 12 hectares of the crop,” said Gabrielle Elung, a farmer in Penja.
The Penja pepper grows well in the rich volcanic soils in the area and is resistant to extreme weather such as prolonged rains or drought, experts say. The local conditions, on the flanks of Mt. Kupemuanenguba, also give the pepper its unique taste.
“The rich volcanic soil of Mt. Kupemuanenguba has given the pepper a soft and refined flavour and aroma that will appeal to anyone that loves good cuisine,” said Bernard Njonga, executive officer of ACDIC, an NGO that supports farmers in Cameroon.
Thanks to the pepper’s certification, and increasing demand in national, regional and international markets, production reached 350 tonnes in 2016, up from under 150 tonnes prior to certification, Nzenowo said.
Approximately 60 percent of production is consumed locally and in neighbouring countries, with the remainder exported to European markets, according to Cameroon’s Ministry of Trade.
COCOA, COFFEE LOSSES
Farmers blame the cyclical uncertainties of coffee and cocoa harvests and prices not only on the climate but also on pests and diseases. Losses from these twin scourges claimed between 30 and 40 percent of Cameroon´s harvest in the 2014-15 season, according to the National Cocoa and Coffee Board.
According to government data, coffee yields for the 2015-2016 season stood at just over 16,000 tonnes, down from more than 38,000 tonnes in 2009-2010.
A slump of more than one-third in the prices paid for both coffee and cocoa beans by exporters, following a downward trend in prices on the international market in the past two years, has made the situation of farmers even more perilous.
“We fear the prices will decline even further in the years ahead as climate threats worsen, and this is bad news for small-scale farmers like myself,” said Ajong Cletus, one of the few cocoa farmers in Penja still holding on to the crop.
The government is struggling to encourage cocoa and coffee farmers to stick with their crops. Last August it halved its tax levy on cocoa exports, in an attempt to boost revenues for farmers and exporters.
But the Ministry of Trade reported that 20 percent less cocoa arrived for export at the port of Douala by mid-December than during the 2016 season.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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