ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Top cocoa grower Ivory Coast has embarked on a 10-year programme to replace much of its ageing tree stock with new, higher-yielding and more disease-resistant plants, the official guiding the effort said.
Around a fifth of Ivory Coast's cocoa trees date back 30 years to the early days of the sector's rapid expansion, but they have become unproductive and vulnerable to fungal disease such as black pod which thrives on moisture.
Ivory Coast's current average yield per hectare of 400-500 kilos of beans is barely a third of that in Indonesia, and the aim is to push yields above one tonne a hectare by replacing old trees with a hybrid variety locally known as "Mercedes".
"This year we will distribute high-yield pods for 30,000 hectares and in two years we will reach 50,000 hectares a year," Tiemoko Yo, general director of the National Agriculture Research Centre (CNRA), told Reuters.
"If we succeed, it means we won't need three million hectares to produce what we do now, we'll just need between 1-1.5 million hectares, freeing up land for other things."
Yo said the Mercedes strain -- whose technical name is CNRA-Cac.h -- can attain yields of 2.5-3 tonnes a hectare and has a high butter content, boosting its appeal to grinders.
He said the new trees start producing beans within 18 months of planting and said farmers would have access to state agronomists who could advise them on how to regenerate their stock, and extend planting to currently fallow land.
Ivory Coast's cocoa sector, which supplies round 40 percent of the world market, has defied predictions of its demise by turning out a record production of 1.51 million tonnes in the 2010/2011 just ended.
The sector has been seemingly unharmed by a four-month post-election conflict which killed over 3,000 people and caused over one million Ivorians to flee their homes. Some farmers think they can match last seaons's output again.
After a decade of liberalisation, the government is looking to introduce a regulated mechanism whose goal would be to guarantee its some 800,000 small farmers a minimum selling price less dependent on world futures market fluctuations.