PNG aid boost good news for chocoholics

National Cocoa advisor Dr John Konan counts the number of beans in a cocoa pod.
The Coalition's emphasis on business benefits from foreign aid is boosting PNG's cocoa industry, writes Tarnay Sass.

The PNG cocoa industry is expecting a major revival thanks to a new project to increase yields, support struggling farmers and respond to international demand for more chocolate.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) program will be led by La Trobe University research fellow Dr Phillip Keane. It will be one of five projects funded through DFAT and the 2016-17 federal budget allocation to agricultural foreign aid.

ACIAR outgoing CEO, Nick Austin, says a focus on improving agricultural aid is important because of the large role it plays in the effort to reduce poverty.

“It’s become increasingly apparent … there is little difference between agricultural scientists across the world … we all need to eat.”

Thirty million dollars will be invested over five years, with $5 million has been allotted to Dr Keane’s cocoa plan.

“The project fits in well with the current government’s intention of having foreign aid implemented on a business-basis … we are trying to set small businesses in villages to provide farming advice and services to farmers on a fee-for-service basis to ensure that these institutions have a life beyond the project,” says Dr Keane.

“Improved cocoa supply will benefit Australian chocolate manufacturers,” says Dr Keane.

Other projects include the development of commercial sweet potato crops in Bougainville, as well as galip or canarium nut crops, indigenous to the South Pacific.

The cocoa industry in Papua New Guinea has recently lost its high reputation for producing a high quality product, because drying the beans with wood-fired kilns means smoke can contaminate and affect the flavour. The ACIAR project will increase the quality of the cocoa using mostly solar drying.

Cocoa accounts for 18 per cent of agricultural exports in PNG, third behind palm oil and coffee, but it is not reaching its full potential due to overgrown and under-harvested crops, according to Dr Keane.

The recent concerns about a possible world-wide chocolate shortage is due in part to the difficulty of keeping pests and disease away from cocoa plantings.

Dr Keane and his team will implement methods to significantly reduce these problems, mainly reducing the size of plants, making diseased pods easier to reach and healthy pods more accessible when harvesting. Local fruit and coconut trees will also be used as shade.

“PNG scientists have developed new cocoa varieties and cultural methods that we know are capable of increasing yields from the current average of about 200 kilograms a hectare to more than 2000 kilograms a hectare,” Dr Keane says.

“The problem is to get these new cocoa types and methods applied widely on farms, and so the project is more to do with farmer education and financial support than just developing new techniques.”

The project will also work to educate illiterate women in PNG communities on how to look after cocoa and sweet potato crops.

“We are trying to create better economic opportunities … fighting language and cultural barriers. We work on cultural literacy,” Mr Austin said.

“Agriculture is about three or four times more effective in lifting poverty than anything else.”

Dr Denis Blight, executive director of the Crawford Fund, says that “there is never enough research going into [agricultural research] … it has been proven that this research works in increasing food security.”

The Crawford Fund is a non-profit NGO who work to highlight the benefits of agricultural research, as a large portion of people living in developing countries live in rural areas and rely on farm work for an income.

The ACIAR was allocated $103.5 million for the 2016-17 financial year in the federal budget, and expects an extra $17.2 from outside partners such as DFAT.