By Tansa Musa
KUMBA, Cameroon (Reuters) - Farmer Lawrence Mekoli has just sold eight 60-kg sacks of cocoa and earned the equivalent of hundreds of dollars. But he is far from happy.
"My brother, how can I smile with what I've gone through," Mekoli said after striking the deal with a buyer at Kumba in South-West Province, the main cocoa zone in Cameroon, the world's fourth biggest grower of the commodity.
"This cocoa was delayed in my village for about three weeks," he said.
Mekoli's farm in Kumbe-Balondo village is only around 50 km (30 miles) from Kumba. But when heavy rains come and the roads become potholed quagmires, many private transporters refuse to drive here to collect cocoa for fear of damaging their vehicles.
Mekoli eventually found someone prepared to bring his cocoa to Kumba, but had to pay 2,000 CFA francs ($4.17) for each sack, way over the 500-1,000 CFA he usually pays in the dry season.
Worse, by the time he came, the market price had dropped.
"I called vehicle owners in Kumba to come and evacuate my cocoa to the market, but they told me they could not come because the bad state of the road will ruin their vehicles," he said.
"At the time, cocoa was selling in Kumba at 800-900 CFA francs per kg. Now that I have managed to bring my cocoa here today, the price has gone down to 720 CFA francs. Just see for yourself how much I've lost," he said.
Poor transport infrastructure is one of the greatest obstacles to trade in Africa, making it hard for poor farmers to get their produce to market in good enough condition to fetch the highest prices, and driving up overheads.
The World Bank said in June it would provide $201 million in loans and grants to improve road and rail links between Cameroon and neighboring Chad and Central African Republic -- countries it said had "some of the least functional traffic connections of any area in the world".
As the link to the Atlantic coast for both the other countries, Cameroon will get the lion's share of the World Bank cash. But such investments for major traffic arteries are unlikely to trickle down to the level of small roads linking farms and villages to provincial trading towns like Kumba.
RAIN, DELAYS HURT QUALITY
"I've been to most remote villages where farmers produce a lot of cocoa, but can't evacuate them to market centers. Sometimes they get stuck in mud during evacuation and the beans become humid, attracting a low price," said retired banker Agnes Mambe, who is trying to help farmers here improve their lot.
The rainy season in the southwest lasts most of the year and keeps the lush landscape wet enough for cocoa trees.
But too much rain brings its own problems, creating the perfect environment for humidity-loving fungal diseases and making bean drying a struggle against the elements.
The European Union provided 2,500 drying ovens in 2001, helping eliminate the contamination of beans sometimes caused by locally made wood or coal-fired ovens, or by roadside drying.
Use of the ovens is important as the European Union -- which buys 86 percent of Cameroon's output, mainly for grinding in the Netherlands -- has set maximum levels for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), created by partial burning of carbon fuels.
But many farmers say there are not enough new ovens to go round, making it hard to deliver well-dried beans to buyers.
Repeated rains can also wash off pesticides and fungicides, forcing farmers to spray trees more frequently to keep black pod and other diseases at bay, Kumba Mayor Caven Nnoko Mbele said.
"The period of cocoa harvesting coincides with the period of intense rains," he said.
Apart from the weather, farmers complain they are also squeezed by buying agencies, to whom many growers are perpetually in debt for fertilizers and pesticides advanced on credit.
"The cocoa farmer ... is not a rich man, in spite of his labor," said Mayor Mbele. "Experience has clearly shown that if you desire to be a prosperous man in the cocoa business, you should rather be a cocoa buyer than a cocoa farmer."