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Research funds to prevent losses in West African cocoa

An international consortium, including Certis Europe, aims to help develop effective control of CSSV in West African cocoa production

Harvested cocoa pods drying before being roasted
Healthy cocoa pods prior to harvest
Mealybug infestation on cocoa leaves
Spraying cocoa for mealybug pests using Eradicoat

The Department for International Development (DFID) and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) offer UK businesses and research organisations the opportunity to apply for a share of up to £3 million for projects with partners in eligible African countries.

A consortium of Certis Europe, Rail Vision Ltd. and Rothamsted Research in the UK and Positive Agro, agricultural distributors on the ground in Ghana, has been awarded a grant over three years to address the critical and increasing problem of losses associated with the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV) disease in West Africa. The CSSV disease has for many years been a major constraint to cocoa (Theobroma cacao) production in West Africa and it has become an internationally recognised crisis that is leading towards increased poverty across the region.

There are over two million smallholder farmers and 10 million people in West and Central Africa relying on cocoa as their main source of income. Farmers are already struggling on their meagre annual income of around €4,000/annum (€1400/annum per hectare and the average farmer harvests 3 ha/annum).

Ghana's economy is the second biggest in West Africa and is strongly reliant on exports of cocoa. High prevalence of CSSV has occurred across more than 300,000 ha of cocoa farms in Ghana and is already affecting the livelihoods of about 100,000 farmers. In addition, fungal and oomycete diseases of cocoa, such as Armillaria mellea, Phytophthora species and Colletotrichum species are dispersed by airborne spores and soil and can also devastate production areas. Ghana has the second highest prevalence of CSSV because of the lack of a commercial product or service in place that provides cocoa condition and diagnostic data at a localised level for individual plantations.

Tackling CSSV in cocoa plantations in Africa is a long-term accumulated challenge. The virus disease is spread to the cocoa trees by mealy bugs and takes between two and five years to kill the plant, with reductions in yield each year. Not knowing where and which cocoa trees are infected before it is too late to intervene with mitigation steps (e.g. use of pesticides) has been a major constraint in efforts to reduce the losses. Technologically, 30cm high resolution satellite imagery exists but there is no automated software available for high speed analysis of such data to generate diagnostic information. Similarly, drone solutions for data collection may exist but there are no analytics tools. Also, there is no existing approach to using satellite image analytics to narrow down areas that need further drone-based analytics as drones by themselves cannot cover the entire region of cocoa plantations but will be used to provide additional detail at key locations.

Currently there is resistance to extensive use of pesticides and techniques such as cutting down and burning the infected plants and replanting farms with tolerant cocoa hybrids is reported to be opposed by the farmers as it affects their short-term income.  Existing control measures are unable to prevent the occurrence of new virus outbreaks in newly planted areas in Ghana. There is very little empirical evidence, and therefore no education available to the farmers on how to reduce the risk of disease spread. Comprehensive strategies to control and prevent CSSV in the African region are therefore urgently required and depend on effective international collaboration.

This project aims to develop and commercialise a solution to restrict disease spread and enhance the overall integrated approaches to combat the losses caused by CSSV. Rail Vision’s platform technology (ARIES), based on mathematical models and software tools for satellite and drone imagery data analytics, aims to identify the areas either already infected with CSSV, or regions which are at high risk of being infected in the future.  ARIES will, over the three years of the project, optimise the image analysis system to enable forecasts of the probability of a cocoa plantation already having CSSV or being at a risk of developing it in future through statistical measurements on plant density, diversity, growth, canopy cover, visual appearance and other local factors. Other members of the consortium will bring the technical and commercial knowledge and capabilities needed to use the data gathered by drone and satellite to manage and control the disease situation.

Trials in Ghana have shown successful control of the mealy bugs that spread the disease using a biological product, Eradicoat, from Certis Europe. These will be further extended as it becomes possible to target more precisely the areas to be managed.

This project brings together a Ghanian & UK based consortium with diverse technical & commercial capabilities for successful development in line with our multiple customers including regional organisations in Ghana (COCOBOD etc), agrochemical companies & cocoa processors who strive for solutions such as ARIES for asset management, future demand planning, disease control management and acquiring targeted data for bespoke marketing.            

Through this project, the consortium will develop a platform which can precisely predict the exact location, current infectious status, future risk of being affected by CSSV of the cocoa trees and data on plantation condition to mitigate the risk by incorporating the key factors of canopy cover, plant diversity, tree height, chlorophyll level and tree density. This will provide a tool that help direct the activation of targeted mitigations steps and thus increase the productivity of the cocoa industry in Ghana to meet the growing demand for cocoa based products whilst protecting the incomes of the cocoa farmers.