Simon Nyamuchwangano, 71, has grown cocoa for the past 17 years, earning an average of Ush1.6 million ($449) per month from his 1.5-acre farm in Bundibugyo District in western Uganda.
But this year his fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse earning him less than Ush100,000 ($28) a month after mired bugs and the cocoa pod borer infested his main source of income.
Cocoa is harvested twice a month throughout the year — with the high seasons being September to February and March to August — offering farmers a steady stream of income from January to December.
In fact, Bundibugyo, the area that produces the largest percentage of Uganda’s cocoa (more than 70 per cent), farmers abandoned other food or cash crops due to the attractive prospects of cocoa.
Then, Mr Nyamuchwangano and other farmers sold a kilogramme of cocoa beans to local dealers at an average of Ush5,000 ($1.40), but now the price has shot up to Ush8,200 ($2.30) as the harvest dwindled and cocoa beans became scarce.
Sylvia Busingye, the accountant at Olam Uganda Ltd, a company that procures and exports cocoa, said her company buys an average 10,000 tonnes of cocoa per year from Bundibugyo alone.
In the recent past, however, Olam has had to reach out farther and import the cocoa deficit from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s villages that neighbour Bundibugyo but also boast fertile volcanic soils favourable for cocoa farming.
Today, many Ugandan cocoa dealers have set up collection points within the DRC from where they buy cocoa and import into Uganda for re-export. But most of this passes through the porous border, which has made it impossible for Uganda’s Customs to keep reliable records of the amount reaching Uganda.
“DRC now produces more cocoa than Uganda but Congolese farmers sell their produce to Ugandan dealers because the latter already have a foothold marketing it in markets abroad,” Ms Busingye says.
“Problem with their cocoa is that it is not organic like that grown in Uganda.”
Uganda’s cocoa is competitive on the international market, Ms Busingye says, mainly because it’s organic (no use of fertilisers or pesticides) and is therefore preferred because its fine-flavour cocoa beans are ideal for processing some of the best chocolate in the world.
In fact, the organic factor seems to be the cocoa industry’s undoing, as farmers have historically avoided spraying cocoa with pesticides that could make it lose that organic tag and push down prices.
The EU, for instance, set maximum residue levels (MRLs) for more than 500 pesticides used on various foods and food products, including cocoa — with a default MRL of 0.01 mg/kg. This means that the use of pesticides is allowed but should be tightly controlled.
But some farmers also claim that when they tried to spray their cocoa using the pesticides provided by the government, “the cocoa trees would just wither, which forced them to abandon spraying altogether,” said Fulgennsio Bamwitirebye, who has been a coffee farmer since 1972.
Mr Bamwitirebye told The EastAfrican that his farm has been facing the problem of pests and fungi for about five years now, which has led to a steady decline in yields.
With a three-acre plantation, Mr Bamwitirebye is one of the biggest cocoa farmers in Bundibugyo, and certainly made himself a fortune from the crop as he owns a gated mansion on the outskirts of Bundibugyo town and drives a new Toyota Land Cruiser.
Before the arrival of pests, Mr Bamwitirebye used to get more than 600 kilogrammes per harvest during the high season (twice a month), but that has now dropped to less than 500 kilogrammes.
Now some farmers, he says, have begun to cut down their cocoa plantations and opting to grow vanilla.
“But we have limited alternatives. Vanilla is more labour-intensive than cocoa yet prices remain low,” he said.
Cocoa was first introduced in Uganda in 1901 by the British colonial administration. Commercial exports started 1917.
For decades, cocoa and coffee remained the biggest foreign exchange earners for the country until the 1970s and 1980s due to political instability.
Today, Uganda exports more than 30,000 tonnes of cocoa beans per year, according to data from Uganda Export Promotion Board.
The country is ranked among the top 20 exporters of cocoa in the world, according to Uganda Export Promotion Board data.
“We export it in its raw form because there is no chocolate factory in Uganda. All we do is initial processing,” Ms Busingye said.