Working Lives: The Cocoa Farmer Who Employs Beninois Labourers

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.

Okewande Oludayo. 

I went to school to a certain stage but later decided to become a farmer. My grandfather and father were farmers. I noticed that they had a better standard of living than people with education. This influenced my decision to become a farmer.”

Where are you from? And what kind of crops do you plant?

I am a full-time cocoa farmer from Ogbomosho town in Ogbomosho South L.G. of Oyo State, Nigeria. My farm is at Garage Olode Area of Ife South Local Government, Ile-Ife. I plant cocoa, a cash crop. But I also have plantain and cassava farms.

How long have you been into farming and what’s the motivation?

I went to school to a certain stage but later decided to become a farmer. My grandfather and father were farmers. I noticed that they had a better standard of living than people with education. This influenced my decision to become a farmer. I also realised farming is a profession one can live on and be proud of. Especially cocoa farming.  So long you are willing to be patient. 

There is a belief that farming is stressful and not very lucrative. What’s your take on this?

True to an extent. In the past, farming could make people age quickly. It was backbreaking. But this has changed. We now have easy access to agrochemicals, weed crushers, etc. We also don’t have to do all the work ourselves now. We hire labour, either for specific tasks such as weeding or as farmhands for a year. I have been in cocoa farming for more than 20 years but you can’t tell by looking at me. With telephones, we now have access to buyers from far and wide. This has improved our incomes. 

Okay, but for how long do you work in a day?

From 8 am to 4 pm while the labourers leave by 2 pm. 

How many labourers work for you?

Two labourers. They are from Cotonou.

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What do you pay them? 

They only take a motorcycle after the year and the cost is N280,000. They take it back to their country.  They live as part of the family and they have the same meals we have. 

Are there other expenses?

Yes. Like buying cutlass, sharpening files, and agrochemicals. 

Why should people go into cocoa farming?

Cocoa is different. You plant and tend cocoa trees for a year or two. But once they mature, you keep harvesting from the same trees for 20 – 30 years. I know people who are still harvesting crops from cocoa trees inherited from their fathers and grandfathers. You don’t have to replant cocoa every year like yam or cassava. And unlike plantain that is perishable, you can store harvested cocoa for many months. People sell in bits to meet immediate expenses and sell the harvest in bulk when they need the money. 

Cocoa farmers also have easy access to cash from buyers in advance if they desperately need money. The buyers have a good idea of the worth of their harvest. Most times, buyers come to farms to pay in advance while the pods are still on the trees to secure the crops for themselves. Buyers don’t pay in advance for yams or plantain.  Cocoa farming is special. 

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

This is hard to tell. It can only be easy to estimate for people who already have big money somewhere.  Most farmers don’t set up farms at once, it’s gradual.

How about your monthly earnings from the farm?

This also cannot be calculated because there are months or even years of planting that is different from years when you harvest. I make money from plantain and yam too, but it’s hard for a farmer to calculate his monthly income.

Okay. But you must know how much you spend in a day?

Some days I don’t spend anything on the farm while other times I could spend N1,000, or even N5,000 on medicals, essential needs like body cream, toothpaste, or batteries to listen to the radio.

How about savings?

I save N30,000 in some months and N15,000 at other times. I save less when  I have to pay school fees or when we have a party in the family.

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How do you establish a cocoa farm?

First, cocoa is a lifetime crop, so you have to buy your own land.  You cannot lease land and have the owner cannot wake up one day and tell you he wants to use his land. You then need to clear the land of trees; cocoa requires rays of sunshine so you shouldn’t have too many trees providing shade. The best method of planting cocoa is to first plant the seeds in a nursery by the riverside and later transplant the young plants to the farm. You then have to weed the farm and spray chemicals to prevent diseases. Some people plant directly on the farm.  It takes a year or two to start harvesting the crops. The land or soil choice is important. Some soils are very good for cocoa.  You would want the best soil because the crop will be on the land for a very long time.

What are the challenges in cocoa farming? 

There are many challenges generally with farming, from accidents on farms with cutlasses to snake bites, insect bites, etc. Access to modern implements, machines, good roads, hospitals, etc makes it bearable. If farmers could easily bring their harvest to town because the roads are good, food will be a lot cheaper. A good deal of the harvest is wasted during the rainy season because the roads are so bad. Government agricultural interventions should also reach the real farmers not hijackers masquerading as farmers. Most times agricultural interventions don’t reach the real farmers.

What are your biggest achievements as a cocoa farmer?

I have cars and houses and my children are going to good schools.  I am grateful for that. 

Any advice for young  Nigerians?

Cocoa farming is a good way to secure your future. If you plant four acres of cocoa, you only have to suffer for a year or two. You can plant plantain alongside for income in the short term. You will keep harvesting from the four acres, leaving you to do other things to add to your income. You will be better off than most of your peers.

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