Working Lives: The Cocoa Farmer & Dealer Who Used to Be a Waiter in Lagos

Working Lives – The Cocoa Farmers of Ile-Ife

This week we stepped out of Lagos as we sometimes do to speak to cocoa farmers in Ife. We got something of a rude shock.  We expected to meet wizened old men who, as they say in the South West, cannot write zero even by stamping the bottom of a bottle on the sand. But most of the cocoa farmers encountered have some education, one even has a Higher Diploma from a polytechnic. They are also managers and entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector rather than being farmers doing backbreaking work- they hire labour for the hard work and trade farm produce as far as Lagos.  They also shared policy-relevant ideas, for instance how investment in infrastructure and healthcare in rural areas would not only reduce the price of food but stem rural-urban migration.

Mr. Oke Olalere

When I finished secondary school, I went to Lagos and got a job. I worked for a hotel for a few years but then I realized I wasn’t going anywhere in life. I was running hard on one spot. So I went back home. My father asked me what I wanted to do and I said I would like to be buying cocoa.”

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been into farming?

I am a cocoa farmer from Ipetumodu, Ife North Local Government, Osun State. I have been a cocoa farmer for more than 30 years. My farm is in the Erinta area, NTA in Ile-Ife. I also buy cocoa from other farmers to resell.

Why did you decide to go into farming?

When I finished secondary school, I went to Lagos and got a job. I wasn’t going anywhere in life.  I was running hard on one spot. So I went back home. My father asked me what I wanted to do and I said I would like to be buying cocoa. Then he linked me to a man who trained me in buying. It was while learning that my boss told me it’s advisable that I buy cocoa farms myself. I invested the gains from trading cocoa into establishing a cocoa farm.

How long do you work for in a day?

I work from morning till evening on the farm. I go to the farm by 8 am and return at 4 pm. But my workers return by 2 pm.

Can you take us through what it takes to grow a cocoa farm?

If you want to plant Cocoa, you do the nursery and make Cocoa beds like vegetable farm beds. This germinates in around 30 to 35 days. The seeds are then spread on the beds, and palm leaves are used to cover them. After the seeds germinate, we then transplant them to the real farmland; this is best done when there is drizzling during rainy seasons in May, June, or July.  Then we dig holes in the farm and place the young cocoa tree inside. It withers off first and brings out new leaves later. We then start managing, ensuring there is no bush because cocoa does not do well with weeds and insects. We now have varieties that fruit early in about two years. At worst, cocoa is already fruiting in four years. 

How much does it cost to set up a cocoa farm?

It’s hard to say this is how much it costs to set up a cocoa farm as I started gradually, firstly securing land. It is inestimable. 

You must have people working for you. How many are they?

Yes, sure. I have two labourers.

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And how much do you pay them? 

Between N120,000 to N130,000 at the end of the year while feeding cost for one labourer is N10,000 per month. Meanwhile, Cotonou labourers earn higher but you spend less on feeding them as they eat mostly garri, plantain, and few Nigerian meals. They earn between N200,000 to N250,000 yearly when they are going back to their country by December.

What other things do you spend money on?

On harvesters and inputs and sundry farm needs. 

What major challenges do you face as a cocoa farmer?

Money to finance the farm. We mostly engage labourers from Cotonou, Benue, or Calabar who work for us because you cannot do everything yourself. These people earn like N150,000 to N200,000 yearly and we give them N3,000 weekly for feeding.  You also have to take good care of them as encouragement. I relate with them like my children and I get productivity for that.  With all this, you will see that money is key. The government can help us too, by giving us soft loans, tractors to ease the stress of land clearing which we pay little for to rent. Money that the government sends to farmers often doesn’t get to the real farmers. We farmers know each other. They should visit us directly on our farms, and engage us with close monitoring. We will deliver results.

What’s the main difference between planting food crops and cash crops like cocoa?

Food crops like cassava, plantain, cocoyam, potatoes, yam, etc are year-in-year-out planting but cash crops like cocoa are lifetime planting. It is forever. Once planted, generations unborn benefit from it. Of course, a farmer can decide which is preferable to him based on capabilities.

How much do you earn monthly?

On average, I make N50,000 monthly from farm sales. And it could be more sometimes.

How much do you spend daily?

This is hard to tell really but I assume at least N1,000.

Okay. How about savings?

I save once I make some farm sales and have weekly and monthly ajo (contributions). The weekly ajo contribution is N3,000 each for three different ajo collectors and N5,000 for the monthly one.

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What’s your advice on starting a cocoa farm?

You start by getting good land and then labourers – one or two is fine. From January to March, you should clear the thick forest or bush. Get the workers to dig holes throughout the farm, and let them be planting plantain suckers beside the holes and by June, you will put your nursed cocoa. The plantain will give the cocoa the needed water to survive. You can start selling the plantain in a year. 

Some farmers complain of problems with selling, how do you sell your produce?

Cocoa is very easy to sell but the problem is that of price, which is not fixed. Presently a kilo is between N850 to N900. Months back it was N1,000. This is one of the challenges we experience. But beyond that cocoa enjoys good sales.

Many youths go to school, some learn vocations, others a trade. What’s your advice to youths that may be interested in farming generally?

They should consider the cocoa. The suffering is for only about a year and even while waiting for the cocoa to fruit, you will then be making money from plantain, yam, cocoyam, etc. There are farmers who make N200,000 every 15 days from selling plantain from their big farms – this should be an inspiration. There are now farmers who ride better cars than University lecturers.

What have you achieved in life as a cocoa farmer?

Well, I thank God. I have had the special grace to achieve a lot in this small town. Aside from this house in which we are sitting, I have two other houses in this town.  I have cars, and bikes and even gave one to my boy to ride to the farm and school.  I have two plots of land in a developed area and 8 acres of land, aside from my farms. These are things I keep thanking God for.

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