Sao Tome’s agricultural dilemma — Transcontinental Times

Sao Tome and Principe : The islands of Sao Tome and Principe, off the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, are blessed with some of the most fertile tropical soils in the world. The agricultural sector plays a central role in the economic destiny of these islands, accounting for around 20% of the country’s GDP, 70% of its export earnings and employing 50% of the population.

The Prime Minister of Sao Tome once said: “Agriculture is at the very heart of São Tomé and Príncipe; it is not only economic, it is also cultural, cocoa remaining the most important export product.

Lack of sustainable agriculture in Sao Tome

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Historically dependent on its agricultural sector, these volcanic islands produce a variety of high quality agricultural products, such as cocoa, coffee, fruits, vanilla, pepper and palm oil.

Although endowed with excellent conditions for tropical agriculture such as fertile volcanic soil, plenty of running water, a favorable year-round climate and a long growing season, Sao Tome’s agricultural economy is still mainly limited to plantation agriculture, especially cocoa.

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Sao Tome pursues a policy of actively promoting the production and export of a handful of its quality products. As a country that depends mainly on foreign aid and has a small production base, it has relied on its high-end products, especially cocoa. Other niche products are coconut oil, palm oil, pepper and vanilla, all of which are exported.

Over the years, as part of a conscious policy, Sao Tome has allowed a few select foreign companies to invest in plantations of these crops. The results, however, have been mixed.

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Foreign companies such as AGRIPALMA (palm), Efraim (coffee), Valúdo (coconut), 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.

Photo credit: Pexels

Since the emphasis is not so much on volumes and expansion of plantations, this has allowed farming communities to increase their standard of living, makes cash crops sustainable and simultaneously preserves the natural wealth of the islands.

under this “local and solidarity manufacturing”, factories were built on the plantations themselves to produce products on site from freshly harvested crops. They believe that this production chain was developed to create high quality products such as chocolates, coconut oil, vanilla sticks, palm oil or coffee while respecting their sharing objectives wealth and preservation of nature.

Sao Tome exports around US$8 million worth of cocoa products, mainly premium chocolates and cocoa powder, to the West. This figure is tiny, but it represents nearly 50% of the country’s total merchandise exports.

Sao Tome and Principe is nicknamed the “chocolate islands”. Photo credit: Pixabay

Having lived in Sao Tomé for over a year, I can say with conviction that Sao Tomé cocoa is of unrivaled quality and highly sought after by major chocolate manufacturers in the USA and Europe, including Cadburys. Their local chocolates are also of exceptional quality. Fully aware of its high quality, the local government is betting on the production of organic cocoa for a niche market. In a sense, cocoa exports have become the cornerstone of a country’s trade policy, thus dependent on foreign currency to finance its imports.

Sao Tome’s organic coffee is also of exquisite quality and produced as a family business. Their smooth Arabica is second to none, great value, but pricey. Like cocoa, high quality coffee is only processed on a limited scale.

A Franco-Belgian company produces various coconut products, including oil, flour, soap and dried fruit, but only in a limited and sustainable way. I used local coconut oil in daily cooking; its quality and flavor are of the highest quality.

Palm oil is becoming Sao Tome’s new main export product, accounting for around 30% of the country’s exports. Pepper and tropical flowers are also increasingly produced in minute quantities for export to Europe.

Palm oil is becoming Sao Tome’s new main export product. Photo credit: Pexels

An Italian company collaborates with a handful of local farmers and uses high technology and the generational knowledge of locals to cultivate vanilla. Launched in 2019, exports of vanilla beans, vanilla essence and vanilla rum are on the rise.

There is potential for processing local products from local tropical fruits such as jackfruit, guava, pineapple, bananas, breadfruit, taro and cassava.
There is no doubt that Sao Tome’s organic coffee and cocoa command a premium due to their perceived high quality. But despite the hype, Sao Tome’s agricultural opportunities are largely untapped. There is no tradition or precedent for mass production in this country. It’s all about quality and durability.

Much of the agricultural land is state owned. About two-fifths of the total land area is cultivated, of which 2/3 is used for planting cocoa trees. Coconut and coffee plantations occupy the rest. Large areas of plantations continue to be poorly maintained, except during the harvest period. Other challenges are high levels of unemployment as well as critical labor shortages.

The seaport and the only airport lack adequate cold storage facilities to maximize exports. Small market size and profitability issues are further challenges. All these factors have contributed to the decline in agricultural production on these islands. Ironically, for a country trying to position itself as a high-end source market for its niche products, Sao Tome has never been self-sufficient in basic 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 climate is conducive to the harvesting of tropical products. Together with the tourism sector, the agricultural sector has the potential to become the main engine of the economy of Sao Tome and Principe.

The question for policymakers would be: should they persist with low-volume, high-end export products for precious dollars to finance their imports, or switch to traditional farming of staples like food grains to become self-sufficient?

Also Read: Exploring Sao Tome’s Unique Culinary Traditions

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