Cocoa “The Chocolate Tree”

Major products

  • Chocolate
  • Cocoa powder – flavouring agent in ice cream
  • Dairy products
  • Bread spreads
  • Biscuits and sweets
  • Provides finishing touch to food products ranging from special confectionery to cappuccino coffee

Other potential uses

  • Cosmetics
  • Medicinal use – chemical properties

Soil and climate requirements

Cocoa is a crop of warm humid climatic conditions requiring a well distributed rainfall of 1250mm – 3000mm per year and an annual precipitation of 1500 – 2000mm per year. However, it can be successfully grown by supplementing rainfall with irrigation during prolonged dry periods.

Cocoa tolerates minimum temperatures of 18 – 21°C and maximum temperatures of 30 – 32°C with temperatures around 25°C considered as optimum.

Cocoa grows well on a wide range of soils, however, it prefers fairly loose soil with at least 1.5m depth of free drainage to allow easy root penetration and movement of air and moisture.

The soil should have the ability to retain moisture during the dry season. Cocoa requires a regular supply of moisture for proper growth. It can be grown in soils with pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.5.

Under storey plant (Plant under shade)

It is best to plant cocoa as under-storey plants beneath shade trees. Shade serves as sun protection, reduces wind exposure and provides an excellent microclimate. Cocoa prefers protected conditions and does not perform well in excessive sunlight, or in strong or unrelenting wind.

Persistent wind interferes with the ability of the roots to firmly stabilise the tree, particularly in young plants. Young vigorous plants can be blown or bent over and new leaves can be broken at the axils.

It is important to note that if the shade is too heavy the cocoa may not yield well while if there is too much light the cocoa may suffer from sun scorch.

Plant Density – Plant spacing

Trees are grown in intervals of 2m X 4m, i.e. 2m between trees and 4m between rows.

Planting

It is only necessary to dig a hole big and deep enough to accommodate the root ball of the seedling and to leave enough room to firm the soil in properly around it. Planting the seedling deep in a trough is not recommended.

The best time to plant cocoa seedlings is at the beginning of the wet season. Cocoa seedlings should be planted just deep enough so that the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. If the hole is too deep, soil should be placed back into the hole before the seedling is planted to bring the root ball up to the correct level. The dug out soil should be heaped around the base of the seedling to form a watershed to prevent excess water collecting in a hollow around the seedling. Mulch can be applied straight after planting.

Upkeep and maintenance

Weeding

A month after planting it is useful to hand weed around the seedling and maintain the heap of soil around it.

Weed control may only be an issue during establishment though regular weeding rounds will be necessary to ensure that the young trees do not compete with any weeds.

Once the plants mature, and a complete canopy has formed, heavy shading and leaf litter will inhibit the growth of weeds. Manual slashing along the tree rows and around the young plants is recommended. Avoid using herbicides, as they may kill the young plants due to spray drift.

Pruning

Correct pruning is essential to develop the preferred plant structure and to limit height. It is important to remove chupons (new shoots or suckers) growing along the main stem and on the fan branches to prevent subsequent jorquette (leader stem divides into 3-5 main fan branches), consequently restricting further vertical growth. This allows for a formation of a tree with canopy at a convenient height for management. Usually the first jorquette is formed at approximately 1.5 to 2meters. Avoid pruning the fan branches though occasional removal of low hanging branches is essential in order to maintain the evenness and structure of the tree.

Nutrition

Nitrogen (N) enhances root and stem growth and leaf development. Phosphorous (P) stimulates root development in young plants, increases the proportion of fruit to plant ratio and speeds maturity of the crop. It also increases the  plant’s resistance to some diseases. Potassium (K) is essential in formation of starches and sugars in plants; without it plants do not mature well.

Pests and diseases

Young cocoa seedlings must be well protected in the first year against sucking pests and leaf eating insects. Common pests include aphids, mites, mealy bugs and caterpillars. Common diseases include black pod and canker.

Harvesting

cocoa1

Cocoa plants start bearing approximately 16 to 18 months after planting. Average yield is approximately 3 – 4 tonnes per hectare or 2.5 – 3.3 kg dry beans per plant.

On ripening the pods turn from green to yellow, orange or deep red depending of the variety. Pods are removed from the tree, cut open and the beans are scooped by hand. Care must be taken during this process to avoid damaging the beans. It is vitally important that the beans are not left too long in the pod as they may germinate inside the pod. This will have significant influence to the quality of the chocolate flavour.

Fermentation and drying

After the beans are removed from the pod, they are left to ferment for 7 days. Fermentation kills the seeds and enhances the development of the chocolate flavour.

Fermented beans can be dried in the sun or in a mechanised drier to at least 5-7% moisture content basis.