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[ABIDJAN] Côte d'Ivoire is aiming to help farmers revive their cocoa plantations with a US$5 million experimental research station, due to be operational by January 2013.

The station, which will be based in Zambakro, in the country's Yamoussoukro department, is an initiative of the food and nutrition company Nestlé. It is expected to cost 2.5 billion Central African Francs (US$5.2 million) and will be built on a 30-hectare site.

Work began on the centre last month (12 October) and the company expects it to be completed within the next 15 months, said Serigne Diop, director of the Nestlé Research and Development Center Abidjan.

Diop told SciDev.Net that the research station will reinforce the capacities of African farmers by training them in the best cocoa-planting techniques.

The country's National Centre of Agronomic Research (NCAR) will collaborate on research undertaken at the new station. To date, NCAR has developed about 15 new cocoa plant varieties which produce higher yields in Ivoirian soil.

Meanwhile, researchers at Nestlé have developed a more cost-effective cocoa plant production technique that multiplies plants in vitro without using beans.

The two institutes will combine these interventions in the Zambakro centre to produce high-yielding cocoa plantations.

Diop told SciDev.Net that the station is being established in response to the needs of Ivoirian cocoa farmers.

"These research programmes will increase the agricultural productivity of the existing plantations," he added.

He said that the Zambakro station will also function as a training centre for agricultural cooperatives testing new techniques in cocoa farming.

M. Mouaye Regis Konan, an agricultural engineer at the Organisation of the Producers of Cocoa of the Lagoon Region (OPLRC), said he was confident that the collaboration between NCAR and Nestlé will move cocoa research forwards.

He added that some are concerned that the commercial firm may be acting in its own interests, but NCAR's involvement should reassure people that the research results will be objective.

Comoé Marius, president of the Ivory Coast Consumers Organisation, said: "We hope that Nestlé will not work for only its own profit but also for the cocoa producers of the Ivory Coast, and will help them to increase their income and improve their quality of life."

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