Ahead of this year’s Independence Day Festivities, a Budding Cocoa operation is making impact in the host county, Lofa. The farming initiative is being hailed by dwellers in the Quardu-Gboni District as a success story and a key source of livelihood for scores of residents.
Stephen Kollie, FPA COUNTY CORRESPONDENT
Sazanor Town, Lofa County –
When visitors to this year's Independence Day celebration in Lofa County hit town during the week of July 26, 2011, one project will likely keep them in their tracks, a successful farming initiative development covering 14,820 acres and 6,000 hectares nucleus cocoa plantation matched by a complementary out growers-smallholders program. The initiative has to date some 400 Liberians employed and has been instrumental in construction of road and bridge building for dwellers who point to the project as a key source of income and livelihood.
The plantation located in Sazanor Town, Quardu-Gboni District in Lofa County lies 20 kilometers from Voinjama, the county's capital and 414 kilometers from Monrovia, Liberia's capital.
Residents in the area point the project as one of the crowning achievements of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's government and Senator Sumo Kupee, the county's senior Senator who has been instrumental in facilitating the project to ensure its success.
“I think the fact that the government allow investors to come here and give us the opportunity to work and support our families is a good thing, no matter how you look at,” says Flomo Zayzay, a local farmer who is one of several residents plowing the cocoa fields.
Residents also point to the project as the brainchild of Momolu Tolbert, the project took off in 2009 as a privately-owned venture when the Liberia Cocoa Corporation, undertook the leasing and development of a 14,820 acres/6,000 hectares nucleus cocoa plantation with a complementary outgrower and smallholder program.
The project valued a US$3.9 million investment. Tolbert is said to own significant shares of the project with the backing of an foreign investors.
In the long term, developers of the area envisions the nucleus estate as a key driver of a revived and regenerated Liberian cocoa industry.
By the end of this year, the company plans to cultivate 447 (four hundred forty seven) ha in both cocoa and plantain planting season of which 60 ha were planted have already been planted. However because the level of production has been low, not much effort has been put into the production of cocoa that meets international quality standard until lately.
Liberian cocoa attracts a discount of 20 percent of the world market price whilst cocoa from countries like Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire earn a premium because of their high quality. The cocoa to be produced under the envisaged project is expected to be world class and to obtain the prevailing world market price.
Ironically, the cocoa project is a far cry from the ADA/LAP $US30 million dollar project which has failed to take off.
The ADA/LAP deal was sealed in 2007 when the Switzerland- based Libyan Investment Company, Libya Africa Investment Portfolio (LAP) in partnership with a local NGO, the Foundation for Africa Development Aid (ADA) brought into the country US$30M for rice development. But five years later, the project has been in limbo
Cocoa is referred to in many farming cultures as an excellent smallholder crop because it is not as labor intensive as other crops. But its commercial cultivation offers a great opportunity for the country to diversify its productive base away from the current over-dependence on rubber. The Liberia Cocoa Corporation is facing a great opportunity with the development of a large scale cocoa plantation in Liberia. The soils and topography of Quardu-Gboni where the project is situated are known to possess good characteristics for cocoa cultivation. Information from local farmers in the area indicates that the Quardu-Gboni region has been contributing significantly to Lofa County's share of Liberian cocoa production even in the pre-war period.
Soils test show that although acidic, the soils have the essential elements for cocoa production in adequate quantity and where it is suspected to be less, amendment with commercial fertilizer and compost will give desired yield. Two types of soils are characteristic of this area: namely, clay loam and sandy loam. With adequate rainfall and good soil management practices, both soil regimes can support the establishment and development of vigorous cocoa trees.
The LCC has, as of July 2010, cultivated 60 hectares with two varieties. The varieties were identified as stocks from Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. These two varieties are of short duration with gestation projected at 18 to 24 months. They are well adapted to the ecological conditions as well as the soils of Ghana and La Cote d'Ivoire. They are said to yield better than previous cocoa varieties which have been grown in the two countries. Information from the cocoa research institutes of these two countries indicates that the varieties can yield up to 2.3 metric tons per hectare). In any case, yield will be lower in the first and last few years of production (i.e. estimated at between 1.6 and 1.9 mt./ha in the first three years and the last five years, respectively). The planting trees per hectare or stand per hectare is given at 1,122 trees.
The cocoa seedlings at the LCC plantation have been intercropped with either banana or plantain crops. Nearly 10% of the banana and plantain trees have reached physiological maturity thus needing harvesting. The banana and plantains appear to be well adapted to the soil regimes although there is a foliar infection of black sigatoka disease probably caused by the fungus (Mycosphaerella spp). The LCC management plans to plant and manage 447 hectares, including the 60 hectares already cultivated. As a result of this objective, a seedlings nursery amounting to about 480,000 seedlings has been developed.
Besides the Cocoa operation, the investors have also been involved in road building and maintenance bridge building to ensure that residents move from one area to the next without problems.
“The roads have been a blessing,” says Massa Mulbah, a mother of four who treks the road leading to the farm daily for work. “If it wasn't for this project, especially the bridge, I don't know how we would manage.”
In the foreseeable future, developers plan to build schools and clinics and freshwater points and get local farmers involved in skill development and management training.
As Lofa County braces for this year's Independence Day festivities in the wake of the LAP/ADA flop, the project in Sazanor Town, Quardu-Gboni District has given residents a renewed sense of pride that they can wake up each day and go to work in a bid to earn a living.
“We take it day-by-day but at least we have something to turn to,” Kollie Zazay, a farmer who treks the road each day for work.