Monday 12 March 2012

Changing times

My last day in Malaysia and Chow Boi has arranged a really interesting trip for me to visit a cocoa farm and meet some interesting industry folk.

We climbed out of Kuala Lumpur – into the Titiwangsa Mountains, home to the Genting Highland resorts. This is a very beautiful drive - wonderful forest in these hills, and cool. We meet up with a whole group of cocoa industry movers and shakers; they are all good friends and associates and have been involved in cocoa for many years.

We head off to a small town and meet Kou – a farmer who is also a trader. We meet him in his ‘shop’ full of cocoa bean sacks, and then head off to see his farm – and end up in a beautiful valley – with forest on the upper slopes, and cocoa and palm oil at the base of the valley. Kou’s cocoa farm is exemplary – he has been farming here since the mid 80s and the trees are extremely well managed and cared for. He can get 3000kg from a hectare through good management – including grafting, pruning, spraying against disease, and good hygiene. He is an innovative and intuitive farmer – taking on ideas from experts and then developing them further to work for him.

However, after 28 years in cocoa, he is about to give this all up and next year will replace the cocoa trees with oil palm. There are many reasons for this; the main one he gave was that he just cannot get the labour needed to work his plantations. Cocoa needs one person per hectare to carry out the intense management needed to ensure good harvest; Malaysians do not wish to work on farms, and so the only labour available is immigrant – but the government manages this very tightly and according to a model based mainly on oil palm – in which one person can manage 10 ha. So Kou finds it difficult to attract labour, train them (tending cocoa is very skilled) and then retaining them. He feels it is time he needs to step back from the farm (he is in his 60s) and so oil palm will provide his pension. Cocoa costs MR6000 a year/ha to produce and sells at only MR7000 a year/ha. The economics of oil palm are very different and earn a great deal more.

Our talk that day was mainly about this – the last death throws of the cocoa industry in Malaysia. The Malaysian Cocoa Board claims that the annual production is 20,000ha, but no-one I met that day could identify where that production came from. Cocoa is disappearing fast, being replaced mainly by oil palm, but also rubber. The talk was about resisting being sentimental about this, but the need to look to the future and the industry’s need to focus elsewhere on securing future cocoa supplies. Hence the industry’s focus on work with small holders in Indonesia, and also on the new ‘wild east’ of cocoa production – Vietnam and the Phillipines.

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