Chili plants stretch as far as the eye can see in Claude Memel’s field. This is his “private kingdom,” and he is proud when he walks around the field. Some of his chili plants are one metre high.
He smiles like a man who has won a bet. But he didn’t have the same look when he grew groundnuts.
Mr. Memel has three hectares of land in Elibou, in the Sikensi district 80 kilometres north of Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire.
He began to grow bird pepper, also called piment martin, after getting low yields and little income from groundnuts. The bird’s eye chili is a very small variety which can be either red or green, and is long and curved.
Before starting to grow the pepper, the 38-year-old farmer got advice from a team of agricultural technicians who were visiting Elibou. They taught him how to grow good quality peppers and get good yields.
He waters his pepper plants daily with about 20 litres per square metre. Bird pepper is grown in March or April or off-season in September or October. During the dry season, an agricultural technician named Lorng Esmel recommends that farmers grow bird pepper near swamps or where watering is easy, as it is normally a rainfed crop.
Mr. Memel uses fungicides and insecticides to keep his pepper plants healthy. This helps the young farmer harvest six times a year. He says, “Bird pepper farming is very profitable. I harvest six to seven tonnes per hectare, or 18 to 21 tonnes on my three hectares.”
In two years, Mr. Memel has enjoyed twelve bird pepper harvests, compared to one harvest per year for groundnuts.
He earns 20 to 25 million CFA Francs a year [$35,000-$43,000 US], which enables him to pay school fees for his younger brothers and sisters.
Guahou Honora is a 42-year-old farmer who grows bird pepper on one-and-a-half hectares in N’douci, also in Sikensi district.
He says that every season is challenging, including preparing the nursery and preparing the soil. But the harvest period scares him the most because it puts him under a lot of pressure. Mr. Guahou says he needs to harvest the whole crop within one month to prevent the peppers from rotting.
On top of that, it is often difficult to find skilled workers during this period. Producers are sometimes forced to pay high prices to harvesters. This is the most expensive part of their operation.
Mr. Guahou says, “I hire four harvesters per day for a period of one month [which is] required to harvest one hectare. Each one of them receives 2,500 CFA francs [$4.30 US per day].”
For his whole plot of one hectare and a half, the harvest costs about 450,000 CFA francs [$780 US].
But he forgets these challenges quickly at the end of the season. He says: “Within two years, I became a millionaire despite hard working conditions … This is something I didn’t succeed in becoming in eight years when I was doing business.”
The farmer boils the freshly-harvested peppers in oil and dries them on racks, the same kind that cocoa growers sometimes use to dry their beans.
Then he puts everything in cotton bags before storing them in well-dried, ventilated warehouses to avoid moisture. Then, they are ready to be sold.
Encouraged by some buyers, the two farmers plan to switch to organic pepper farming by using natural fertilizers, and giving up products such as fungicides which they use to treat some attacked plants.
But the cost of organic products discourages them. According to Mr. Memel, 18 boxes of biological products are needed for one hectare, or 54 boxes for his three hectares. Each box costs 8,000 CFA francs [$14 US].
He would also have to buy twelve boxes of organic fungicides for one hectare. Each box costs 5,000 CFA francs [$9 US]. He says, “I would like to buy them, but I don’t have sufficient financial means.”
Despite the challenges, bird pepper chilies have changed the lives of Mr. Memel and Mr. Guahou for the better. Both plan to expand their plots.