The Solomon Islands Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAL), is launching a new program of participatory cocoa development to improve the cocoa planting material for farmers.

In 2011, production of cocoa in Slomon Islands was around 6,500 tons. The new program hopes to help farmers produce 20,000 tons of cocoa annually by 2020.

Permanent Secretary of MAL, Frank Wickham the new program is aligned with the national cocoa policy to guide the future development of the industry.

"Over the last six months, we have been working with stakeholders to develop a national cocoa policy to give strategic direction to the development of the cocoa industry in Solomon Islands," Mr Wickham said.

"We need to improve the productivity of each cocoa tree, not just increasing the area of cocoa planted. The national cocoa policy, together with a new genetic improvement program, will provide a good basis for linking research and extension programs to support farmers in growing better varieties of cocoa."

Mr Wickham said before the AusAID-funded Cocoa Livelihoods Improvement Project (CLIP) ended, it sourced 2,400 improved hybrid cocoa seeds from the Cocoa and Coconut Institute in PNG to use in field trials. CLIP also funded the construction of a new shade house at the post-entry quarantine facility at Henderson airport, where the cocoa seedlings are currently growing under observation to ensure they are free from pests and diseases.

Raymond Vava, a research officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock explains the process.

"We have 2,400 hybrid seeds representing 10 improved varieties of cocoa - five of these are big hybrid varieties and five are small hybrid varieties in terms of tree vigour and growth characteristics. These different tree sizes will give farmers more options in managing their cocoa orchard," Mr Vava said.

"We have labelled each individual tree so we can track their growth performance and they are also under observation for the next six months to ensure they are free from pests and diseases."

"Once we are confident the seedlings are clean, they will be planted at a research farm at Tenaru in marked plots. Once the trees start to branch, cuttings will be taken and budwood will be sent around the country to groups of farmers interested in being part of a participatory action research trial to assess the performance of these improved varieties in Solomon Islands. We will identify the best performing trees from the hybrids to be cloned and released to farmers."

Mr Vava will be mentored by Dr John Konam, an international cocoa expert from PNG. Dr Konam worked with the CLIP program for three years to demonstrate the principles of Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPDM) in cocoa. AusAID is funding Dr Konam to continue working with MAL during the next two years to launch the new cocoa breeding and development program.

Dr Konam explains the potential of these new seedlings.

"In 2011, cocoa brought in SBD119 million for the country, but this was mostly produced by only 20 percent of the cocoa trees. The other 80 percent of the trees are not producing very much - they are 'passenger trees' so we need to replace these with more productive trees," Dr Konan said.

"A good local cocoa tree should be able to produce at least one kilogram of dry beans per year. Some of these improved varieties that we have sourced from PNG should be able to produce more than four kilograms of dry beans per year."

Dr Konan said through Raymond Vava's work, the program would identify good performing trees and propagate them for distribution to farmers.

"We aim to work with farmers around the country to spread this new planting material and test their production in the field. We are also working with a few farmers to identify and spread the best local varieties, with the characteristics required by the market for butter fat content, shell thickness, bean size and flavour. This work will be scaled up through the participatory action research program to be implemented by the Ministry."

Source: Press Release, Austrlian Aid, Solomon Islands