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Captain JPL Davies’ cocoa lessons



Sometime in April 1916, a note was published in the Journal of the African Society stating that the first person to plant cocoa in West Africa was ‘a native of Africa’ who planted the crop in the 1880’s. The Journal went on to say that this Ghanaian was so successful that in 1891, he exported 80 pounds of cocoa to the United Kingdom from his farm.

In June of 1916, Justice William Brandford Griffith wrote a letter to the Journal disputing that claim. Justice Griffith was a British colonial judge who was Chief Justice of the Gold Coast from 1895 to 1911. He had an interest in cocoa because his father Sir William Brandford Griffith, who had been Governor of the Gold Coast for 10 years from 1885, had introduced cocoa to Ghana’s Gold Coast. In his letter to the Journal, he was adamant that the first person to plant cocoa in West Africa was a Nigerian man who went by the name Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. Justice Griffiths said that while his own father had planted cocoa in Gold Coast around 1886, as early as 1882, Captain JPL Davies used to tell him about his 200-acre cocoa farm just outside Lagos in a town called Ijon.

He was right. In 1886, Captain JPL Davies exported 2.8 tonnes of cocoa from Lagos and by 1890, his exports had risen to 6 tonnes. Captain Davies was an excellent sailor so he chose Ijon for its waterways which allowed him transport his produce to the ports by boat. But something even more interesting happened. Captain Davies success attracted other people most notably Jacob Kehinde Coker who had a 1,500 acre farm in Ifako, Agege. Coker had been planting cotton and kola on his farm but he struck up a friendship with Davies who was almost 40 years older than him. Through this friendship with Davies, he began to learn about planting cocoa and carried out experiments with cocoa on his own farm.

Coker’s large farm allowed him to spearhead the formation of the 200-member Agege Planters Union (APU) in 1907. Because his farm was so large, it needed to employ migrant workers from the interior of Yorubaland. The more people came in contact with cocoa, the more the ‘gospel of cocoa’ spread across what is now South West Nigeria. By 1900, the amount of cocoa exported from Lagos had greatly exceeded what was being produced on Captain Davies farm. Yet, just 10 years before, he had been responsible for all of the cocoa being exported from Lagos.

The rest of the story is perhaps more familiar. By 1950, cocoa made up almost 25% of all exports from Nigeria as a whole and of course, in August 1965, a 24-storey building by the name Cocoa House was commissioned in Ibadan, Oyo State as a monument to what cocoa had contributed to South-West Nigeria’s development. By this point, cocoa had become a ‘government crop’ and its decline was inevitable.

There are many lessons one can learn from this story.

These days, Nigeria is governed by people who believe that government is all-knowing and all-powerful. There is nothing the government cannot do – it can plant rice, it can empower some farmers and disempower fertiliser companies who do not behave themselves. Even though all the evidence is that the government led the country into recession with poor policy choices, it is the same government that is currently dragging Nigeria out of recession with its super powers. Mind you, recession is just a word. I know this because the government told me so.

Yet, the part of our history we choose to forget teaches us what private effort can do when it comes to transforming the economy of Nigeria. Everybody remembers how the old Western Region ‘developed’ cocoa back in the early 20th Century and used it for the ‘benefit of the masses’. But no one remembers how an entrepreneur who was left alone to experiment was able to introduce the crop in the first place and turn it into a business. It is also forgotten how ideas were able to spread undisturbed by a malevolent government (at least for a while) to the extent that cocoa went from practically zero to a major wealth earner in about two decades.

Today, we have ‘businessmen’ who will only ‘invest’ once government has taken away all the risk for them. The first thing they do is to ‘partner’ with government. Then they will need the government to ban foreign competition for them when they start producing as well as get the government to either buy their product or force Nigerians to buy it. Can you not see that these ‘selfless’ businessmen are only doing what they do out of love for their country? The blood in their veins is green. And when they do not get their way, they threaten to shut down their business and take the government hostage. In today’s Nigeria, Captain Davies or J.K Coker would have collected several intervention funds (as well as subsidised forex) and used the government to block competition to maintain their monopoly. The innovation would not have spread.

Regardless of the direction you think the country is headed, we have indeed come a long way. We now have this unholy mess where government makes it so difficult to do business that only the government itself can do it.

It is not always a good idea to be nostalgic for the past. But we can allow history remind us of how we once had economic success by allowing private enterprise to flourish through innovation and the spread of ideas.

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