Network support

GPS and smartphones improve cocoa production in the Caribbean

Sandeep Jagger
Vernon Barrett

CFCF uses GPS technology, smartphones, videos and the web to collect data on cocoa production. The organisation shares the information through a network of farmers, processing businesses and researchers to improve product quality and reach new markets.

Over the past few decades, sugar and bananas were the most common agricultural products grown in the Caribbean. However, with the recent decline in these two sectors and increased market interest in dark and organic chocolate and similar products, cocoa production has received a boost in the region. Cocoa is a prestige product with a high economic value, and there are now several projects across the Caribbean to assist farmers and government departments to raise the position of cocoa in global markets.

Only fifteen countries in the world produce the high grade of cocoa known as ‘fine or flavour’. Nine of those countries are in the Caribbean. Farmers throughout the region work hard to grow and prepare the fermented and dried cocoa beans for export to the world’s top chocolatiers. Since 2010, the Caribbean Fine Cocoa Forum (CFCF) has represented the interests of the many people and businesses involved in the supply chain to bring the product to market. The main focus of the Forum’s work is to support small-scale farmers, cocoa cooperatives and processing businesses to increase the value, and maximise the potential revenue from the crop.

Over the past two years, CFCF has established a broad network, linking a wide range of regional research data and resources to ensure the continued development of the sector. The organisation’s contacts with global cocoa agencies such as the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) and the Round Table for a Sustainable Cocoa Economy (RSCE), and the development of a CFCF brand, raises the profile of the farmers’ product and adds to its market value.

The Forum further supports farmers by providing improved tracking and disease control information. It promotes clean fuel use through gas-fired and solar cocoa dryers (instead of oil-fired), and demonstrates ways in which the crop’s by-products can be used.

CFCF is developing a quality control and certification process to ensure that farmers consistently deliver a product suitable for market. Initially, the organisation is helping a group of 400 farmers to meet the necessary requirements by providing information on production techniques that can lead to increased crop yield and higher prices for the product. ICTs have proved invaluable in the gathering and delivery of relevant information to reach so many farmers with limited resources who are spread throughout a large region.

Position

GPS technology, in particular, has been useful for collecting data and ensuring that rural farmers are included in the network, and therefore in the market supply chain. CFCF trained a number of farmers, known as change agents, to use GPS receivers to assist others in their cocoa production businesses. The device proved useful in many areas.

For example, some farmers do not know the exact size of their land, but they often pay labourers according to the amount of land they work. The farmers used the functions of the GPS receiver to calculate the exact acreage of their farms and pay a fairer price to their workers. A more accurate estimate of land size also helps farmers determine precise amounts of fertiliser and pesticides needed for their crops.

Change agents used the devices to record the exact location of the farmers’ gates, and added the coordinates to a central database. In countries such as Belize, Dominica and Jamaica the location information is useful for processing managers who collect the wet cocoa beans from the farms. The managers can use the database to plan efficient routes for the collection trucks and inform the farmer of pick-up times. The Forum also uses the coordinates to identify farmers in the electronic database, the first such source of data on cocoa farmers in the region and a useful tool to document land resources in the participating countries.

As the change agents travelled to record farm details, they also noted the locations of other places of interest to the farmers, such as the market, the fermentary, the local project office, and where to buy nursery plants, fertiliser or pesticides. Eventually, the project team expects that the GPS data will play a key role in tracing the market supply route of the cocoa beans, from when and where the crop was harvested, along with details on yield, quality and flavour derived from each location.

Visual updates

The combination of an ageing population and the migration of young adults to urban centres, or even abroad, means that many of the remaining cocoa farmers in the Caribbean are aged 50 and over. Fewer farmers are physically able to use traditional farming techniques to get value from their land. But they need to stay up-to-date with new technology and mechanisation if they are to maintain and improve production levels, and remain independent.

Many farmers have had limited educational opportunities, and literacy rates can be low in some areas. Audio-visual productions, therefore, have been useful for demonstrating new farming skills and delivering other relevant information. In one training course in Jamaica, for example, audio-visual material was effective for teaching CFCF change agents and farmers about pruning, cutting techniques, treating cut surfaces, selecting and operating pruning tools, fertilising, preparing of planting holes, planting young trees and pest control methods.

The videos were produced showing farmers working in their fields, providing practical and easy-to-follow advice. The use of mechanised tools for farming has now made it possible for farmers to be more productive and for elderly farmers to be more independent, while the technology has made it possible to capture the aims of the training programme and to duplicate the learning experience. The resulting DVDs will be distributed to the change agents and farmers. CFCF is also developing a printed manual detailing the training programme that government agencies and agricultural extension officers can use along with the DVD.

Multi-purpose

As the change agent teams travel to the participating farming areas, they have to be able to share information and communicate with other project staff and farmers. CFCF provided them with Blackberry 9000 Bold smartphones, as they have a number of features that can assist the change agents in their work.

One such feature is the closed user group, which is offered by most cell phone service providers. It allows calls, and in some cases SMSs, to be sent to pre-determined groups of people, usually free of charge. The function is especially useful for managers who have to keep regular contact with a large number of people, and is particularly appropriate for non-profit organisations, such as CFCF, as it helps to keep costs low without compromising communication needs.

The device, like many smartphones, has a built-in camera to take photos and make short videos. The images can then be sent via e-mail or the Blackberry messenger system to project staff or others involved with the Forum through social networking websites such as Facebook. E-mail communication too, has proved effective for keeping farmers in touch with project leaders, and it gives them the opportunity to contact distant family and friends.

The photographs complement the audio-visual training material, and can also be used to capture images to monitor and combat the spread of disease in cocoa fields in the Caribbean. Short (two- to four- minute) pre-produced videos, which can be viewed at any time, are loaded onto the phone’s memories The videos cover subjects such as how to prune a cocoa tree, proper field maintenance, how to apply fertiliser, pest and disease control techniques, and the use of power tools.

Additionally, key project dates are installed in the calendar facility on the phone, along with daily reminders and dates throughout the year when various plants require attention. The device also allows internet browsing, which gives farmers the opportunity to research and learn agricultural techniques and access the whole range of information available on the web.

Another useful feature is the Google Maps mobile application that can easily be installed on the phone. Farmers use the app to view their location on a map, and to estimate distances to other farms, for example, or the nearest market. The satellite view allows farmers to identify features such as rivers, lakes, roads and other landmarks. Some farmers use another app, Google Latitude, to share their location with other farmers and project leaders.

In Jamaica, the organisation, HEADSpace, provided ICT training courses for farmers in local churches and community centres, which are equipped with computers linked to the internet. The resident trainers were given special training to meet the needs of the project, and their efforts now complement the work of the change agents.

Connections

A number of challenges remain for CFCF, but the project team is already working on likely solutions. For example, the priorities of the cocoa research institutes are not necessarily the same as those of the farmers in the Caribbean. There is also very little sharing of resources and information in the sector.

However, the project team has developed good links with the research divisions of food production ministries, land and marine resource agencies, the University of West Indies Cocoa Research Unit, and the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s Department of Entrepreneurship, which is now assisting in assessing and documenting the needs of all concerned parties.

CFCF are constantly adding new members to the network and sharing project and research findings through newsletters, training meetings and an annual conference. These measures will also improve communication and representation of Caribbean cocoa producers at an international level. The under-utilisation of technology is being addressed through the training and development processes ongoing throughout the Caribbean region.

In the near future, CFCF hopes to secure funding to identify super-productive mother trees and tag them with a location-recorded microchip identification system. The stems from these super-productive trees can be grafted onto disease-resistant stock to produce a strong and productive variety of cocoa tree.

Such microchip technology could be used to reduce cases of praedial larceny, where crops are stolen. Crop theft is a serious threat in the Caribbean, especially for banana and plantain farmers. Cocoa farmers also grow these plants between cocoa trees to attract the insect species necessary for pollination. By placing microchips into random bunches of bananas, it could be possible to locate anyone who has stolen the produce. CFCF is still in the process of researching this aspect and would welcome any advice from other projects with relevant experience.

There is increasing emphasis on the production of more value-added goods from the cocoa bean, which most countries in the Caribbean still export as a raw commodity. Producing these new goods, such as teas, alcoholic liquors, dark chocolate, and other confectionery, will mean researching and preparing business models that are appropriate and viable for the small-scale production of other cocoa derivatives.

Moving into new production areas will require more training, the introduction of production processes and the use of new technologies. The concept has already proved a success with the Grenada Chocolate Company, but in the long term, there will have to be greater investment in ICTs to achieve more with the limited resources that are available in these countries. CFCF hopes to be in a position to adapt and meet these future challenges, and help Caribbean cocoa farmers reach their true potential on the world market.

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Sandeep Jagger is a consultant with International Partnership Initiatives, member of the CFCF and a researcher with the University of Newcastle (UK) and Grenoble Ecole de Management (France).

Vernon Barrett is the CEO of International Partnership Initiatives and a director of the CFCF.

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Related resources

International Cocoa Organization
www.icco.org

Round Table for a Sustainable World Cocoa Economy
www.roundtablecocoa.org

Old farmers, invisible farmers: Age and agriculture in Jamaica by Cynthia Woodsong
Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, Volume 9, Number 3, 277-299. 1994

26 August 2011

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)