A profitable cocoa plant that serves as a school in El Salvador

A profitable cocoa plant that serves as a school in El Salvador

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Judith Vanegas
Judith Vanegas
Consultora de comunicación del Proyecto Gestión de Conocimiento de la cadena de valor del cacao en Centroamérica

The "apple of his eye" for Wilber Escobar are his 700 cocoa plants from "a fine and aromatic cocoa strain" that he grows on the Santa Emilia farm in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

"I have struggled to obtain one of the best breeding criollo cocoa, which is not so easy to grow with 30% of variability. Its vegetative material or ´vareta´ is called JSCM or José Santos Cáceres Martínez - usually the one who discovers it names it - discovered in Tecapán in the East of El Salvador and was developed by the National Centre of Agricultural Technology (CENTA)", says the cocoa producer.

He is using dynamic successional agroforestry systems, that prioritise the conservation of natural resources (water, soil, biological diversity) and at the same time, increase productivity in terms of both volume and quality, for the benefit of the economy and cocoa farming families.

Escobar expects to produce about 75 cocoa pods per tree, which is five times more than for a traditional cocoa tree, which yields about 15 pods on average.

"We have no oil, or gold mines, but we do have fine and aromatic cocoa, of excellent international quality, which has great potential in the national and international market. Yet, it is not developing as quickly and as much as we would like," he added.

A passion for the environment, and cocoa...

The 66-year-old producer began planting cocoa in 2017, motivated by his desire to protect the environment and his work with the Alianza Cacao El Salvador project, implemented by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and CLUSA El Salvador in the western part of the country.

"We have no oil, or gold mines, but we do have fine and aromatic cocoa, of excellent international quality..." says Wilber.

As of July 2019, he has a DAF demonstration plot promoted by CLUSA El Salvador with the Central American Cocoa Knowledge Management project implemented by Rikolto with funds from the Swiss Development Cooperation Agency (SDC).

"The cocoa plot set up according to the dynamic agroforestry system functions like a school. The information we have is valuable and allows other cocoa farmers to join in, measure the investments, the profits, and get enthusiastic!," he explains.

According to Wilber, the cocoa plot under dynamic agroforestry systems is going to be profitable for 30 years and, in addition to cocoa, it provides families with other foodstuffs for their daily meals. For example, on coffee plantations, it is not customary to have fruit trees, and therefore this is not taken advantage of. "With these dynamic agroforestry systems, we can have all those crops and meet their food needs," he says.

For a family, it provides a variety of food for self-consumption, which is important for overcoming critical situations such as this pandemic.

Wilber Escobar began planting cocoa in 2017, motivated by his desire to protect the environment.

Escobar makes the most of his knowledge and has made an inventory and photographed the 2,400 plants of 75 varieties, 700 of which are fine-scented cocoa plants, on his plots.

Apart from cocoa, he also has fruit trees such as: pineapple, caimitos, zapotes and Taiwanese guavas, among others. There is also wood and banana to help reproduce the forcipomyia fly that carries out the pollination of the cocoa fructification.

His land was not class "A", and therefore he had to carry out soil correction measures. He added a lot of organic matter. "Being an agroforestry system, the first step was to establish shade and he used shade from fruit trees and paternal trees that bear fruit and are sold in the market".

In addition, he has an apiary that allows him to have a immediate income. He takes advantage of the guava's flowering by providing his bees with nectar and they provide the pollination for his crops.

This innovative and diligent producer makes use of the climate-smart cocoa tools and uses Excel macros to control everything that happens in his cocoa plot: inventories, programming of main activities, costs, expenses, income, the whole matrix to establish levels of profitability, profits, expenses, and return on investment.

These tools, he says, make a rich contribution, because they allow you to measure what you are doing.

"The idea of management, from start to finish, involves going through all the stages of the process: agronomic, cultural, pest and disease control, looking at growth, and plant production, all of which can be done through seeds or grafting," he adds.

Five years of investment and 30 years of profits

"We have been sowing for 30 years or more. Then it is just about pulling out each annual harvest, and it is a self-sustaining and profitable process". The investment will be for five years and the return will be for 30 years, with a profitable crop. Besides being a good investment, it also helps the environment, he emphasizes.

His plantation will reach a productive level in two years. He has invested time in the genes that will give it an excellent flavour, aroma, and strength, to avoid pests and diseases. This has caused him to delay the real production. It takes five months to graft.

In pandemic times, he says, with technology it has not been necessary for experts to take risks and he has had virtual technical assistance, plus the matrices for efficient follow-up. "If I am in doubt, I ask the technician for support with a photo".

In addition, he adds, the pandemic has allowed him to approach experts at an international level with virtual workshops (webinars).

He emphasizes that knowledge is now being generously disseminated. In the past there was some level of zeal not to share research advances, but now organisations share and disseminate information, resulting in a movement that helps resolve a great number of problems: environmental, economic, labour, and climate change containment are all being addressed, despite us being in the midst of a pandemic.