Andrew Kombe of Penja village located about 350 kilometers from Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde happily combs his four hectare Penja pepper farm, discarding unwanted weeds and clipping off parasitic plants. For the 49-year-old farmer, the health and quality of his new climate friendly crop are of prime importance following a disappointing slump in prices of the traditional cash crop in the area, coffee, and cocoa, blamed partly on extreme weather.
“I have to work hard to reap good yields and make maximum gains from my new crop,” he tells InfoCongo.
Coffee and Cocoa farmers across Cameroon say they have been facing a bleak future, amid torrential rains and biting drought that has taken its toll on these traditional cash crops and reversed the gains since 2013.
For the past five years, Kombe and his family have incurred pain and hardship due to dwindling harvest and income from his coffee farm. Not anymore.
The farmers say the unique white and black pepper dubbed Penja pepper, a more extreme climate-tolerant cash crop is holding out the hope of much-needed relief for thousands of farmers in the region.
“We are left with no choice than switch to Penja pepper. Now with the pepper farming, I can raise enough money to feed my family and send my kids to school,” says Kombe.
Afraid of continuously reaping the poor harvest and paltry income from coffee and cocoa, many more farmers in Penja and neighboring villages both in the Southwest and Littoral regions of Cameroon are increasingly switching to the more paying, reliable, and climate-friendly Penja pepper, agriculture officials say.
“The farmers now prefer to concentrate their efforts on Penja Pepper that thrives well in the region,” says Amos Ngolle, agriculture technician at the divisional delegation of agriculture in the Moungo division.
Grown on the flanks of the Kupemuanenguba Mountain, the Penja pepper has since gained national and international fame after the Penja Pepper Farmers Association (PPFA), with support from French Development Agency, sought and obtained in 2013 the certification of their product from the African Intellectually Property Organization.
Farmers of the association say the certification has significantly transformed their lives and the economy of the region, attracting other farmers whose cash crops are affected by extreme weather.
“Growing Penja pepper has now become the attraction of farmers in the area,” says Emmanuel Nzenewo, PPFA Executive Secretary.
The farmers blame the cyclical uncertainties on coffee and cocoa not only to climate but also to pests and diseases that are bringing heavy losses. Shrinking harvest resulting from diseases and pests claimed between 30 and 40 percent of Cameroon´s harvest in the 2014-15 season, according to the National Cocoa and Coffee Board.
A slump of more than one-third in the price of cocoa and coffee on the international market in the past two years has made the situation of farmers even more perilous.
According to government data, coffee yields for the 2015-2016 season stood at just over 16,000 tons, down from above 38,000 tons in 2009-2010.
A kg of cocoa beans fetches about 900-960 FCFA francs (USD 1.50 to 1.65) in production areas, down from 1,600 FCFA in 2012-13.
In some remote areas prices are as low as 700 francs and the farmers fear it will fall even further.
“We fear the prices will decline even further in the years ahead as climate threats worsen and this is bad news for small scale farmers like myself,” says Ajong Cletus, one of the few cocoa farmers in Penja still holding on to the crop.
Though the government is struggling to encourage cocoa and coffee farmers to stay on their crop, they are also promoting the growth of the new cash crop such as Penja pepper.
Since the certification, the price of the cooking spice has sky-rocketed, from 2,500 FCFA (USD 5) per kilogram before September 2013 to about 8,000 FCFA (USD 16) per kg in 2014, and 14,000 FCFA (USD 28) per kg in 2015/2016, according to the Ministry of Trade.
The farmers say the price is encouraging and motivating them to work even harder.
“Because of the encouraging price per kilo, I have expanded my farm from 8 hectares (20 acres) in 2012 to 12 ha (30 acres). I am producing and earning 50% more than what I got before the certification of the product,” says Garbielle Elung, one of the farmers in Penja.
According to the farmers, this certification means the product has been protected from imitation, thus guaranteeing its long-term future.
The Penja Pepper production zone has so far increased from Penja village to include neighboring communities like Loum, Manjo, Mbanga, Njombé-Penja and Tombel subdivisions in the Moungo and Kupe Muanenguba Divisions.
The Penja pepper grown in the fertile volcanic soils in the area, experts say, is resistant to extreme weather.
The region’s natural micro-climate and location at the flanks of Mt. Kupemuanenguba according to agriculture experts protect the product from pest attack and provides for the pepper’s unique taste, attracting increasing demand in the national, regional and international markets. Thus the need and battle to protect the product against imitation.
“The rich volcanic soil of Mt. Kupemuanenguba has given the pepper a soft and refined flavor that will appeal to anyone that loves the good cuisine,” says Bernard Njonga, Executive Officer an association defending the rights of farmers in Cameroon.
Approximately 60 percent of the product is consumed locally and in neighboring countries, and 40 percent is exported to European markets according to Cameroon’s Ministry of Trade. The Penja pepper is one of the only three African commodities, which also includes Oku honey from and Ziama Macenta coffee from Guinea, to be given such a label, prohibiting the product’s name from being used by producers outside of its original region.
With the label, adherence to strict guidelines by the farmers is ensured to maintain the highest standards.
“Guideline rules include ensuring farmers are situated within mapped out perimeters by the association, accepting the norms and code of conduct set out by the association, protecting the crop against extreme climate and regular inspection by a team of PPFA members,” explains the Executive Secretary of association defending the rights of farmers – Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectifs (ACDIC).
“This has contributed to the continuously improved quality of the product,” he says.
Statistics from the Ministry of the Economy, Planning and Regional Development shows that the product is today highly consumed in France, Switzerland, Germany and many other countries in Europe. It is also exported to the sixteen member states of the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI) including Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Senegal.
In a desperate move to encourage farmers to stay on in coffee and cocoa production, the government has decided to half its levy on cocoa exports to boost revenues for farmers and exporters.
The government reduced the cocoa export charge rate by 50 percent per kg, as from August 1, 2017, Cameroon’s Minister of Trade, Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana announced.
“This decision is a change in government policy to encourage farmers and avoid a drastic decline in cocoa and coffee production,” the minister said.