“If we don’t solve soil fertility problems, we can no longer produce cocoa in 20 years”

Over 34 years of experience in cocoa

Peter van Grinsven ended up in cocoa ‘by accident’. After starting a study in medicines, which he didn’t like, he started with a holiday job with MARS, where his father also worked. For MARS he started with a commercial job in Africa, mainly to make forecasts of trends of cocoa production. In 2004 Peter became responsible for sustainability projects in cocoa. Over the years he became more and more convinced that projects don’t create the long-lasting impact we need to achieve and that adoption of good farming practices by smallholder farmers is very hard to reach. Since January 2019 Peter is working as a consultant, focusing on overcoming adoption problems by developing and implementing long-lasting programs for smallholder cocoa farmers for and with cocoa suppliers.

Challenges in cocoa production

There are many problems in cocoa production, but also much more can be achieved than people believe is possible. Peter explains: “In West-Africa every cocoa farmer should be able to produce 1.5 tons per hectare. Because almost nobody achieves this now, almost nobody believes this is possible. I’ve been a lot in the field and everybody who visits cacao fields knows that every farmer has around 5 cocoa plants in his field that produce very well. If we can ensure that this production becomes the norm instead of the exception, reaching these 1,5 tons in 16 years is doable for every farmer if he is supported in a planned, realistic long-term way.”

Deforestation, what is seen as one of the biggest challenges in cocoa production, can only be solved if, next to forestry, also attention is paid to soil fertility issues. Peter states: “Shady leguminous trees won’t feed cocoa plants. We should at least replenish the soils with what is taken out by the plants. Many people are afraid of using fertilizers with the overuse of fertilizers in the western world in mind. In West-Africa however fertilizers are used in very small amounts, so we should worry about under fertilizing and exhausting nutrient resources of soils.”

In West-Africa however fertilizers are used in very small amounts, so we should worry about under fertilizing and exhausting nutrient resources of soils.

Peter van Grinsven

Farmer development plans

Peter became more and more intrigued by how to get people to adopt the right practices, e.g how to change behavior. Changing behavior is very difficult; humans are masters in justifying even wrong decisions they made. Educating people and telling them that they did something wrong is therefore not helping. Really understanding what they are doing and taking time to get to final results are conditional to create impact. In the last 3 years Peter is working with Farmer Development Plans (FDPs) which is now called FarmGrow and supported by a program called “SAT4Farming”. This FarmGrow has a time horizon of 16 years and is basically a digital business plan for a farm. Part of the FarmGrow plan is a diagnostic and monitoring tool, based on 14 points. Four of these 14 points are about soil fertility, demonstrating the importance of soil fertility for successfully producing cocoa.

Coaches and inspectors are the trusted advisors for the smallholder farmers and set up the FarmGrow plan together with the farmer. The FarmGrow plan is always an integrated approach, bundling services and prioritizing which intervention will create the best impact. FarmGrow plans are also realistic, taking into account the family income, what the family spends and what their aspirations are.

Perfect fit soil scanner in FDP services for cocoa farmers

AgroCares Scanner gives within 10 minutes a very practical (digital) fertilizer advice based on measurements of the main nutrients in soil and is already used at a small scale in Ivory Coast. Peter is very enthusiastic about how integrating scanner services in these FarmGrow plans could help to improve soil fertility. “Soil is until now neglected in every approach with cocoa producers. It is too complicated for people to understand. Having a tool that will give practical, basic soil nutrient advice that even people who are not agronomists can understand, fits perfectly in FarmGrow plans. It shouldn’t be a choice to do something about soil fertility. Soil fertility is the main problem in cocoa production; if we don’t solve this, there will be no more cocoa production in 20 years.”

Read more about AgroCares technology and how it can help in maintaining the soil healthy for cocoa production in this blog