SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The islands of Sao Tome and Principe, off the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, are endowed with some of the world’s most fertile tropical soils. The agricultural sector plays a pivotal role in the economic destiny of these islands, accounting for about 20% of the country’s GDP, 70% of its export income and employing 50% of the population.
The Prime Minister of Sao Tome once famously said, “Agriculture is at the very heart of São Tomé and Príncipe; it is not just economical, it is also cultural, with cocoa remaining the most important export product.”
Lack of sustainable agriculture in Sao Tome
Historically dependent on its agriculture sector, these volcanic islands produce a variety of high-quality agricultural produce, such as cocoa, coffee, fruits, vanilla, pepper and palm oil.
Though blessed with excellent conditions for tropical agriculture like fertile volcanic soil, plenty of flowing water, a yearlong conducive climate and a longish growing season, the agricultural economy of Sao Tome is still confined mainly to plantation agriculture, especially cocoa.
Sao Tome is pursuing a policy of actively promoting the production and export of a handful of its high-quality products. As a country that depends mainly on foreign aid and has a small production base, it has put faith in its premium products, especially cocoa. Other niche products are coconut oil, palm oil, pepper and vanilla, all of which are exported.
Over the years, as a matter of conscious policy, Sao Tome has allowed a few select foreign companies to invest in the plantations of these crops. The results, though, have been mixed.
Foreign companies such as AGRIPALMA (palm), Efraim (coffee), Valúdo (coconuts), Claudio Corallo (cocoa) and vanilla (vanilla) have followed a unique policy of developing a chain of local producers and farmers to harvest high-quality products.
Since the current focus is not so much on volumes and expansion of the plantations, it has enabled farming communities to increase their living standards, makes commercial cropping sustainable, and simultaneously conserves the islands’ natural wealth.
Under this “local and solidarity-based manufacturing”, factories have been built in the plantations themselves to produce on-site products using freshly harvested crops. They believe this production chain has been developed to create high-quality products such as chocolates, coconut oil, vanilla sticks, palm oil or coffee while adhering to their wealth sharing and nature preservation objectives.
Sao Tome exports about US$ 8 million of cocoa products, mostly high-end chocolates and cocoa powder, to the West. This number is minuscule, but it constitutes almost 50 per cent of the country’s total merchandise exports.
Having lived in Sao Tome for more than a year, I can say with conviction that the cocoa of Sao Tome is of unmatched quality and much sought after by major chocolate manufacturers in USA and Europe, including Cadburys. Their local chocolates also are of exceptional quality. Quite conscious of its high quality, the local government is betting on producing organic cocoa for a niche market. In a sense, cocoa exports have become a cornerstone of a country’s trade policy, so dependent on foreign currency to finance its imports.
The organic Sao Tomean coffee is also of exquisite quality and being produced as a family business. Their smooth arabica is peerless, great value for money, but expensive. Like cocoa, high-quality coffee is processed on a limited scale only.
A French-Belgian company produces various coconut products, including oil, flour, soap and dried fruit, but only on a limited and sustainable basis. I have used the local coconut oil in daily cooking; its quality and flavour are of the highest quality.
Palm oil is fast emerging as the new main export product of Sao Tome, accounting for about 30 per cent of the country’s exports. Pepper and tropical flowers are also increasingly produced in tiny quantities for export to Europe.
An Italian company is collaborating with a handful of local farmers and using high technology and the locals’ generational knowledge to grow vanilla. Launched in 2019, exports of vanilla pods, vanilla essence and vanilla rum have been rising.
There is potential for processing local products from local tropical fruits such as jackfruit, guava, pineapple, bananas, breadfruit, cocoyam, and cassava.
There is no doubt that Sao Tome’s organic coffee and cocoa command a premium because of their perceived high quality. But despite the hype, Sao Tome’s farming opportunities are largely untapped. There is no tradition or precedent for mass production in this country. It is all about quality and sustainability.
Much of the agricultural land belongs to the state. About two-fifths of the total land area is under cultivation, of which 2/3rd is used for planting cocoa trees. Coconut and coffee plantations occupy the rest. Sizable plantation areas continue to be poorly maintained, except during harvest time. Other challenges are high levels of unemployment along with critical labour shortages.
The seaport and the only airport lacks adequate cold storage facilities to maximize exports. The tiny market size and profitability issues are other challenges. All these factors have conspired toward declining agricultural production on these islands. Ironically, for a country trying to position itself as a premium source market for its niche products, Sao Tome has never been self-sufficient in staple foodstuffs like rice, sugar, edible oils, etc., which it continues to import.
But one cannot ignore the fact that the land is very fertile, and the weather is conducive to harvesting tropical products. Along with the tourism sector, the agricultural sector has the potential to become the major driver of the economy of Sao Tome and Principe.
The question for the policymakers would be: Should they persist with low volume and high-end export products for precious dollars to finance their imports, or shift to mainstream farming of staples like food grains to become self-sufficient?