Interview with Michael Ndoping, Managing Director of Cameroon’s National Cocoa and Coffee Board
Last October, the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) predicted that cocoa production would decrease approximately 20,000 tonnes during 2015-2016. What is the situation today and what are your projections for the future?
Cocoa production depends mainly on the climate. There has been an abundance of unexpected rain in Cameroon in the last two weeks, which is positive for production. By contrast, last year it rained less than expected. It is therefore difficult to make forecasts and accurately predict cocoa production levels, not least due to the effects of climate change. That is why I am surprised by BEAC’s prediction, and I don’t share it.
Thanks to various actions we have taken, today’s production can only improve and recovery is now underway. Compared to the 2015-2016 period, we have good reason to be optimistic about the 2016-2017 campaign thanks in part to the unexpected rain. However, as I pointed out earlier, changeable climates make it difficult to make an accurate estimate of production levels.
Besides, market analyses of the cocoa industry must be put into context. There are many actors with different interests, who try to play with production volumes so that the price of cocoa in the market matches what they need in order to make the highest possible profit.
What role does the ONCC play in the development of the cocoa and coffee sectors?
The National Cocoa and Coffee Board (Office National du Cacao et du Café — ONCC) is a regulatory agent, working for the public good. Cocoa and coffee are two main strategic products for the national economy. Both the production and marketing of these products has a very significant impact on trade balance, income distribution and the level of employment in rural areas. Despite the liberalization of these sectors, the state continues to play a role in the functioning and the development of them.
Given cocoa and coffee are products whose end consumers are people, the quality factor is very important. The NCCO is the body in charge of ensuring that these products comply with quality standards required, as by the market for consumers.
Due to the impact that climate change has on the agricultural sector in Cameroon, the ONCC is also responsible for sustainable development in the cocoa industry and for protecting the environment. If managed properly, cocoa production actually has very few bad effects on the environment; whilst plantation management necessitates the destruction of certain parts of the forest, it is also true that these very plantations contribute positively towards the carbon cycle, thus balancing out any harmful effects on the environment.
What measures does the ONCC take to ensure the quality of coffee and cocoa in Cameroon?
Quality standards for the production of coffee and cocoa in Cameroon meet international market standards. To that end, we have established partnerships with private companies that provide quality control in collaboration with the ONCC. We have also set up a modern laboratory with highly qualified staff. In this laboratory, we carry out all the chemical, physical and organoleptic tests necessary to guarantee the quality of coffee and cocoa exported from Cameroon.
How are Cameroon’s cocoa and coffee markets perceived on an international level?
Coffee and cocoa were introduced to Cameroon by colonial organizations to provide processing industries located in the West with the raw material they needed. Despite the fact that demand in Cameroon has risen for both products, coffee and cocoa from the country remain largely what they always were — a raw material shipped to the West.
If managed properly, cocoa production actually has very few bad effects on the environment
Their substantial contribution towards Cameroon’s GDP make these two products very strong growth drivers and they are expected to remain as such. Right now, new markets such as China, India and Brazil are increasing their demand, which is an opportunity to be seized.
Under the government’s “Emergence Plan 2035”, several programmes are underway for the improvement of agriculture and infrastructure in Cameroon. How have these programmes influenced the development of your organisation?
Under the “Emergence Plan 2035”, a Development Fund for the Cocoa and Coffee Industry (FODECC) has been established. It is supported financially by resources taken from an export tax applied to cocoa and coffee. As a result, projects developed in these sectors neither depend on the public Treasury nor on external funding bodies. With the increase in levies on exports of cocoa and coffee in 2011, today FODECC collects enough money to be injected into these sectors so that they can continue to grow and become more competitive.
Given the government’s stimulus package for the coffee sector, we have high ambitions. The goal is to reach a production level of 600,000 tonnes for cocoa and 127,000 tonnes for coffee. Specific lines of intervention have been identified, such as improving research, productivity, marketing and local processing. Both public and private stakeholders are involved in the government’s plans and we are totally behind them and behind the wider “Emergence 2035” plan established by the Head of State.
What are the main challenges you foresee in pursuing your goals?
The main obstacle is the mentality inherited from the colonial era. In other countries, the agricultural business is considered a noble profession. In Cameroon, it was never promoted as such and many people in the country believe those individuals who work in the fields are those who failed at school. Agricultural labour is seen as a job for the lower classes. We need to change this negative perception. We must take measures towards people valuing this type of work; we need to show our young people and our society as a whole that to be interested in agriculture does not mean to belong to a low socio-economic class.
What should large manufacturers’ role be in coffee production in Cameroon?
There are four or five major industrial players who always succeed in buying raw materials at a good price. Despite the large volume of money circulating in this sector, they do not wish to invest in production. They are only interested in processing and marketing finished goods because that is where they can make a good profit. In fact, it would be of great benefit if the major industrial players were to invest just 2% of their income from the production of raw materials in such areas as fertilization, plant matter, orchard protection, and even in the confidence-building of producers and in measures that would help the profession’s reputation.
Right now, new markets such as China, India and Brazil are increasing their demand, which is an opportunity to be seized
This lack of interest in production also goes hand in hand with a land tenure problem. Landowners know they cannot manage plantations of an industrial scale and as such show no interest in production. Land tenure is a delicate issue in Cameroon because, on the one hand, such activity doesn’t always go down well with locals and, on the other, international environmental organizations believe that the development of cocoa fields contributes to deforestation.
What is your vision of the future development of the coffee and cocoa culture in Cameroon?
The sector should certainly make an effort to move to the next level of the value chain, to add value and to offer finished goods. But above all, we should evolve from a coffee and cocoa subsistence farming culture towards a true agro-industrial culture. This does not mean that we should try to become the largest producer in the world or even in the region. There would be no secured financial gains to that anyway. The important thing is not to try to increase quantity but to try to raise productivity. If we have just two hectares of land but we manage to produce seven tonnes on it, the financial return would ensure a very decent life.