Guest feature: How robotics could play a major role supporting cocoa production

As we recently reported, with cocoa prices at near record-highs, and pressure on crops owing to poor harvests in West Africa and rapid rise of agricultural input prices including specialist fertilisers, supplies of this most valuable ingredient are facing challenges. Godfred Arhinful, an aspiring agricultural robotocist in Ghana, offers his view on how technology could make a significant positive impact

Chocolate treats that have continued to mesmerise people’s taste buds worldwide for generations, are now facing an uncertain future. Though the craving for this pleasure shows no signs of abating, the supply of cocoa beans — its essential ingredient — is on a troubling decline.

A study by the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) had previously projected that the global cocoa supply will fall short of demand by 1 million tons annually by 2050, posing a significant threat to the industry. This represents a 10% decrease in global cocoa production.

Cocoa Crisis
Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producers responsible for two-thirds of cocoa output, are at the forefront of this impending crisis. They face multifaceted challenges that can potentially disrupt the very core of the cocoa industry.

One such challenge is Black Pod Disease, a disease caused by the Phytophthora palmivora fungus, a major threat to cocoa plantations. This disease has been known to wipe out entire cocoa farms, resulting in devastating losses for farmers. Dr. Owusu Domfeh, Head of the Plant Pathology Division at the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG), emphasizes the severity of this threat: “Blackpod disease poses as one of West Africa’s threats to cocoa production and can lead to losses as high as 80%.”

Adding to these challenges is a shortage of labour that both countries are grappling with. Cocoa farming is a demanding process that requires a lot of work, from planting to harvesting. However, many young individuals seek opportunities in other fields, enticed by the promise of higher wages and better working conditions. This shift away from cocoa farms has made it difficult for the industry to maintain production levels.

In 2014, Ghana’s cocoa production fell by 18%, and Cote d’Ivoire’s output fell by 10%. In 2015, cocoa production in both countries continued to decline, with Ghana’s production falling by 12% and Cote d’Ivoire’s output falling by 7%.

Strategies to Protect the Cocoa Industry

Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have implemented strategies to protect their cocoa industries to tackle these challenges. Ghana has taken the lead with its “National Cocoa Development Plan,” an ambitious initiative aiming to double cocoa production by 2025. The plan includes:
• Providing farmers with high-yielding cocoa seedlings.
• Offering training on enhanced farming techniques.
• Establishing programs for rehabilitating cocoa farms.

Cote d’Ivoire, on the other hand, has focused on promoting sustainable farming practices through its “National Cocoa Sustainability Strategy.” This strategy encourages farmers to adopt agroforestry, which involves planting trees alongside cocoa trees for shade and improved soil fertility. Additionally, the country has implemented a certification program to ensure that cocoa is produced responsibly. While these initiatives have positive outcomes, more must be done to counteract the looming cocoa shortage.

Innovations to Address Challenges
Innovations are essential to combat the disease and address the labour shortage. The emergence of laser robots for detecting and eliminating black pod disease fungi holds great potential. These robots could also take on labour tasks such as tree pruning, cocoa pod harvesting, bean cracking, and drying, ultimately making cocoa farming more appealing to young people.

Prof. Enoch Adjei Osekre, an expert in Crop and Soil Sciences from the Faculty of Agriculture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), highlights the transformative potential of this technological breakthrough: “The utilisation of laser robots has the potential to transform cocoa production by easing labour shortages while increasing productivity.” They could also enhance the quality of cocoa beans, resulting in improved chocolate.

However, careful consideration must be given to potential challenges associated with introducing laser robots, such as job displacement and the high cost of implementation. Reskilling programs, financial assistance for small-scale farmers, and community engagement are crucial to ensuring a smooth transition to a technologically enhanced cocoa industry.

Collaborative Efforts for a Sustainable Future
As the industry grapples with a chocolate crisis, it is imperative to adopt a multifaceted approach. Together, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and the international cocoa industry can navigate these challenges and ensure a sustainable future for chocolate, safeguarding this beloved treat for generations to come. While laser robots hold promise, ongoing sustainable farming practices, research on cocoa plant diseases, and global collaborations are equally vital. Additionally, incorporating data would ensure that the information remains current, given the dynamic nature of the cocoa industry.

The fate of chocolate hangs in the balance. The world’s love for this treat is undeniable, and Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire play a crucial role in meeting this demand. Their ability to overcome challenges will determine whether chocolate remains a staple in our diets or becomes an expensive luxury item. Urgent action now, or tomorrow’s headlines could read Choco-is-late!


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