Oba Dokun Thompson

Located in the Southwest region of Nigeria is Eti-Oni, a 120-year old town in the State of Osun that takes pride in being the home to Nigeria's oldest cocoa plantation. The fertile land of Eti-Oni has made it possible for the region to produce cocoa since the first time it was introduced in 1896 by Gureje Thompson, the founder of the town. Since then, cacao became one of Nigeria's major cash crops and a primary source of income for the region before the discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s. Eti-Oni is predominantly an agrarian community boasting of crops including plantain, tangerines, oranges, and a variety of vegetables.
In Conversation With

Oba Dokun Thompson

Oba (King) Dokun Thompson, a direct descendant of Gureje Thompson, currently leads the region as its monarch, bearing the title Oloni of Eti-Oni. A visionary in his own right, and as someone with deep ties to the cacao farming, HRM is working on the renaissance of the cocoa industry to transform into one that is productive and highly rewarding to the local community. This is achieved through different strategies and different kinds of approaches to ensure that everybody is involved in the entire process of achieving what needs to be achieved with cocoa production and, by extension, with the agriculture of other cash crops in Nigeria. In addition to his role as a traditional ruler since 2008, Oba Dokun Thompson is the Chairman of Eti-Oni Development Group, which organises the annual Cocoa Festival in Nigeria, and heads the National Organizing Committee, Nigeria for the biennial Global Cocoa of Excellence Award held at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, France. He is also credited as the initiator of the African Natural Rulers (ANR) Initiative in 2015, a platform centered around achieving sustainable primary socio-economic development in Nigeria, and more specifically in rural areas by facilitating conversations around issues such as conflict, poverty, health, education, housing and environment. HRM is also an active participant in several international conferences and events, and delivers addresses on peace, sustainable development and cultural education with relation to Africa.

You are well known in Africa and in other parts of the world as someone who is bringing about a transformation in the Nigerian cocoa industry. What has inspired your efforts towards the same?

Oba Dokun Thompson: My great-grandfather was the one who brought cocoa to this region after the Kiriji war ended in 1886. Each year, when we celebrate our cocoa festival, we are in fact celebrating the peace that followed the war, and we are celebrating love because cocoa, to me, is the food of love. On the other side, we are also celebrating the development of this new settlement or new kingdom called Eti-oni that followed right after the war. So, that is the inspiration for me. We were involved in agriculture at a very, very young age, although, as a part of leisure activities. When I became the Oloni of Eti-Oni, I needed to turn Eti-Oni into a lifetime project that was about transformation—transforming communities, transforming lives, and transforming processes that would create better conditions for the people. To create a more sustainable environment, whereby in another 120 years, people here can have a better lifestyle, where they have access to social services, good physical infrastructure, decent housing, pipeline water, good roads and, of course, education, health and an environment that people can be proud of.

Since your focus has been on reviving cocoa production in Nigeria, and considering your vast knowledge in the field, could you tell us a little more about the challenges that you have seen in the entire supply chain over time with respect to raw materials and inputs quality, pest and disease attacks, and market linkage for farmers and prices?

Oba Dokun Thompson: When we talk about cocoa, the first challenge is the fact that we don’t consume it locally. That will be addressed eventually, but that is part of the reason why there are a lot of challenges when we talk about access to market and other similar issues, because the consumption happens overseas. You have to depend on exporting raw materials to Europe, North America, or in some cases, to Asia. We have various different kinds of agencies who come up with certifications, and when we look at the price of cocoa, compared to the price of the finished products, it raises some questions. These questions are exactly what creates the challenges. In Nigeria, we have what I want to call ‘cocoa forest’, where we don’t have issues around deforestation and our environment is still intact. We have multiple crops being produced under the same land, so you have colenods, cocoa, oil palm tree, and even have fruit trees like oranges. We don’t clear forests and plant only cocoa trees instead. Our forests are still very, very intact. So managing the farms is also another challenge, to ensure that the forests are still intact and you are not fixing the issues around pesticides, over growing, or other types of crops and weeds. These are some of the little, little challenges.

Just like you mentioned, it is unfair to call farmers poor because of their living conditions. In your opinion, how can farmers in the Nigerian ecosystem be helped?

Oba Dokun Thompson: At Eti-Oni Development Group, our goal is to build a sustainable model — a Smart Town — in line with the UN’s 2030 SDGs. This is our own way of creating a transformation within the community that would transform lives and build sustainability. If we can use technology to understand a product and to add value to it along the way, we move up the supply chain. We are a raw material producing community for now but we are working towards creating more value. And once we can create value it means we are defining our community or environment for wealth creation. It means we can also fund the developmental initiatives or programs that would transform lives. So that is the basis of everything that we are doing. And the only way to achieve this is by creating a culture out of these products. Once we create that culture it means we can consume it lucratively. Some of the biggest telecom companies in Africa today have created value in Nigeria locally; it wasn’t created outside. The money is there but channeling it to the right cause is what is missing, because the opportunity is not being given to the people. Things will start taking shape very soon, and eventually there will be a trend of transformation that would definitely and positively impact on the lives of the people.

The right opportunities inspire people to work hard and uplift themselves. In this regard, what kinds of opportunities do you think should be provided to the farmers, so that their lives can be transformed?

Oba Dokun Thompson: First, one of the biggest challenges and the cause of the poor state of farmers, especially when they cultivate cash crops, is that they earn money only twice a year, which means there is no regular income. Once there are more economic activities taking place in a farming community, there can be more opportunities for job creation that can give them some level of regular income. Although some people are trying to train them to be more prudent, being prudent is not enough. What is more important is that regular income — be it weekly, monthly or daily— so that they are not in search of any alternative means of income. Once the opportunities are given to them in terms of jobs or some form of steady income, it means they can sustain and maintain their lifestyle. They will be able to feed properly, send their children to school, pay for their health services — these are some of the basic facilities a lot of communities lack at the moment. There can also be community programs that will develop healthcare facilities, build better schools. They are all about the UN 2030 SDGs. This also does not put all the responsibilities on the government, because we recognise the fact that the government cannot afford everything, so we have to work in partnership with government to be able to provide a lot of these things.
Our goal is to build a sustainable model of Smart Town in partnership with the government. When we say in partnership with government, it is for the government to provide us with the right access while we do the rest — access that includes opening up channels and creating opportunities for the farmers.

In one of you interviews recently, there was a topic of discussion around should Nigeria be focussing on export as a primary objective or should they be focussing on improving the quality of existing cocoa for better consumption domestically. What are your views on focussing on export verses focussing on better domestic consumption?

Oba Dokun Thompson: For me, it is not just enough to increase production for the sole purpose of exports. That is why the cocoa festival came about. First, it was to improve the quality of what we produce and also boost our production capacity. Our maiden competition of Eko Chocolate Show was held in April in Lagos, the commercial capital of Africa. It is possibly the sixth largest economy in Africa, and is in a position to be the hub of cocoa and chocolate trade in Africa. For me, as long as we are able to consume cocoa locally when we increase the production capacity, it will not only localize the financial gains, it will also boost the cocoa economy in such a way that cocoa producing regions can benefit from it to build their communities with the provision of all these social services and physical infrastructure. So, the most important thing is creating that cocoa culture, engaging in the traditions around cocoa, which is about chocolates and also the cosmetic side of it. When you look at cocoa as a product, you have about maybe six or so opportunities that can be created around it. You have it as a confectionary, you can also use it for pharmaceutical needs, there is also the tourism aspect, there is education, there is research, and there is cosmetics. All these are areas that we need to work on locally. The European or North American consumption countries created that value for themselves in their communities, and we need to do it as well. That’s the only way forward.

One of the biggest challenges that cocoa farmers are facing in Nigeria is with respect to selling raw cocoa beans, but apart from that, what are some of the challenges that cocoa farmers are facing through the entire supply chain, from sowing to harvest?

Oba Dokun Thompson: I want to believe that a part of it is lack of education and a lack of understanding the value of what they have with them. The people who make chocolates locally in Nigeria would have more engagement and direct one-to-one talk with the farmers. This means there would be more people on the field teaching the farmers and letting them know the sort of quality and standards that is required of them. When you have a chocolate maker in Nigeria going to meet a cocoa farmer in Nigeria and telling him that “oh! the last cocoa that you brought to me was not fermented long enough, was not dried long enough, and was not sorted long enough,“ then, because chocolate maker had added maybe an extra dollar to his produce, that farmer would not want to lose such a customer. It means he would improve on his quality, or his processes. With a good farmer-consumer partnership relationship, we can produce the best quality cocoa across the board with other products. For instance, in rice-consuming countries, our local rice is being embraced and the people are being told how to process their rice for taste. The approach to increase quality and standard is actually not from the top, but from the bottom. The locally-based chocolate maker and farmer can collaborate to create quality and standards that the consumer, who is at the top, will embrace and enjoy. While the farmers concentrate on the lower part of it — the primary aspect of producing, fermenting, drying properly and hence getting best quality of beans — other people would engage in other aspects including logistics, branding, manufacturing and processing intermediary products like butter, liquor, and powder. In such a manner, everybody is happy.

People are talking about sustainability these days, and everyone has their own sustainability pillars. What would you say are the steps required to build a sustainable cocoa business in Nigeria and in other parts of the world as well?

Oba Dokun Thompson: In the other parts of the world, their own interest in sustainability is to be able to have their cocoa. They are talking about the environment and climate change. You have the likes of Rainforest Alliance. But when I talk about sustainability, I’m looking at human aspect. The most important aspect for sustainability in cocoa production is to be able to have humans who will do it — that would produce it, harvest it, ferment it and that will dry the product before it could be used for anything. It means their own welfare and protection is paramount to every other thing, whether it is climate or environment, or anything else. Nigeria is not known for this, but I know that in Ghana and Ivory Coast there are loads of issues around child labour, human trafficing, and human rights abusement around cocoa producing regions. People are living in terrible conditions and these are the issues that can affect sustainability. But once that is resolved, it is a different ball game. Then you can achieve sustainability and that is my solution to that. As soon as we build our own cocoa culture, we add value locally and boost the cocoa economy. We are able to fund our developmental initiatives, we are able to provide social services, we are able to build physical infrastructure, and as long as we can put all those in place it means the welfare of the people are being taken care of. It means the next generation would also engage in farming. Even the excess people we have in the urban cities can move into rural communities and join the farming communities and that is how we can achieve sustainability. Sustainability is a human factor and has nothing to do with the rest.

Youth form the backbone for any country. Do you think the inclusion of technology can help attracting youth back to agriculture?

Oba Dokun Thompson: Oh, yes! Definitely, without a doubt. Let us take a look at Nigeria, where the median age is 18 and we have a population estimated at around 170-180 million people. We have the largest young population in the world and these are the people who use technology and have an open mind to learn new things. Once the technology is right and is in place for them, they will be able to use it to boost anything they need to do. Technology has even boosted the music industry in Nigeria, it has also boosted the film industry over here, it has also boosted a lot of things in terms of logistics because communication is easier. So, this particular aspect is very key to the next 10 years and gets us where we want to be.

One last question: what would be your advice to the agricultural community?

Oba Dokun Thompson: A lot of times people, as I said earlier, people see agricultural communities as poor communities, or, let me put it this way, they see farmers as poor people. But, an agricultural community is not, by any shadow of doubt, a poor community. The living conditions and the lack of certain services and infrastructure is what makes it poor. But the moment all the agricultural communities can define their communities for the purpose of wealth creation, that then changes everything completely. It changes their perspective, it changes the narration, it changes their lifestyle and even the people. And that is what agriculture community should strive to do, they need to define their community for the purpose of wealth creation, and defining that it means they can localize value creation. Once they have value created locally, it means they can fund and initiate their development initiatives. It is something that is possible, and It is something that we are doing for the last five to six years. The dignity of the people is being returned to them, their confidence is growing and they are aspiring to do more. Once the people believe in the future, people would be willing to work, to contribute, and to sacrifice. That is what would also engage their children and their children’s children to remain within the community and create a sustainable community.

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