The global supply of cocoa will not keep up with demand for the next five to 10 years, which could result in a bright future for Vietnam's cocoa industry, delegates told a forum held in Binh Phuoc province on April 10.

"Demand for chocolate is surging worldwide, particularly in Asia," said Nguyen Vinh Thanh, cocoa sourcing manager for Cargill Vietnam.

Besides traditional markets like the US and Europe, the demand for cocoa from China, India and Indonesia has increased recently, he said.

However, production cannot keep up with demand since many major producing countries, including Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia, have aging trees that are producing fewer beans.

The market imbalance has driven up prices, Thanh said, adding that the prices could rise much higher than current levels.

Nguyen Van Thiet, UTZ Certified representative in Vietnam, said in the past five years, cocoa prices, like many other farm produce, had fluctuated but not fallen that much, compared to other agricultural products like rubber and coffee.

According to the Crop Production Department, the cocoa plantation area in Vietnam has increased to 22,000ha from 9,000ha in 2007, providing 5,000 tonnes of dried beans in 2013.

Despite the potential of the sector, many delegates at the forum with cocoa farmers agreed that the sector had not yet reached its potential due to poor farming practices, limited technological transfer, pests and diseases, and scattered and small-scale farms.

Pham Hong Duc Phuoc of the Ho Chi Minh City's Agricultural and Forestry University, said the potential for cocoa development in Vietnam was great but challenges was great too.

"With the climate and soil condition here, cocoa's productivity can yield an average of two tonnes of bean per hectare and even more, but it has not reached that much," he said.

Nguyen Van Hoa, deputy director of the Crop Production Department, attributed the situation to farmers' poor understanding of growing techniques and insufficient investment.

Luong Van Thao, a farmer in Tan Hung Commune, Dong Phu district of Binh Phuoc province, told Vietnam News that he had 8,000ha of cocoa intercropping fields with cashew.

"But my cocoa has offered very low yield with many trees not even yielding fruit," he added.

"I didn't know about cocoa farming techniques or how to apply proper fertilisers," he said, adding that he had just followed the methods of other farmers.

Hoa said compared to other industrial trees like coffee, cashew and rubber, cocoa is still a new tree for most farmers in Vietnam.

Farmers must learn the new techniques to ensure success, he added.

To achieve the greatest benefits for the largest number of farmers, Mars Incorporated has developed an outreach initiative to help Vietnam build four Cocoa Development Centres (CDC) in the major growing areas of Dak Lak, Ben Tre, Binh Phuoc and Ba Ria-Vung Tau provinces, according to Dinh Hai Lam, Vietnam Cocoa Development Manager for Mars Incorporated.

The centres are part of the Vietnam – Netherlands Public Private Partnership for sustainable cocoa development, with members including the Vietnamese and Netherlands governments, Rabobank, Mars Incorporated and Cargill.

The PPP project aims to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and their families, and to secure long-term sustainability of cocoa production.

On April 10, a Cocoa Development Centre was opened in Duc Lieu Commune in Bu Dang District of Binh Phuoc Province to help farmers plant cocoa in a sustainable way.

The centre, which covers three hectares, will provide farmers with needed cocoa expertise, demonstrations of high-yielding farms, and new high-yield varieties of cacao, Lam said, adding that it would also help ensure cocoa consumption.

Phan Van Don, deputy director of Binh Phuoc province's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: "The centre will help create linkage in the cocoa value chain to reduce intermediate costs and increase profits for farmers."

He said that farmers in Binh Phuoc, with the help of the centre, would prefer cultivating cocoa by intercropping with cashew gardens.

Currently, a tonne of cocoa is priced at 58 million VND (2,746 USD) to 60 million VND (2,840 USD) and even 62.8 million VND for UTZ-certified beans, Thanh said.

Intercropping cocoa in cashew gardens will help increase farmers' income while not affecting cashew yield, he added.

Vietnam plans to have 50,000ha under cocoa cultivation and produce about 100,000 tonnes of fermented beans by 2020, Hoa said.-VNA