Cocoa Agroforestry at ECOM


Cocoa agroforestry is a multifunctional land-use strategy that offers numerous benefits, including increased resilience in agronomic, ecological, and socio-economic aspects and can contribute to the long-term success of cocoa farming systems (Niether et al., 2020). Cocoa agroforestry is one element of regenerative agriculture and involves practices such as inter-planting within cocoa farms, border planting around farm edges, and strategic planting near water sources for erosion protection and watershed health (Dagar & Tewari, 2017). As cocoa remains a vital global commodity, embracing agroforestry practices offers one of the solutions to meeting the demands of today while ensuring a resilient and sustainable future for cocoa production. 


Cocoa is often grown in the variable system of “agroforestry” whereby forests are selectively thinned and cocoa, other fruit or timber trees are planted beneath the remaining canopy (Franzen & Borgerhoff Mulder, 2007). These systems often replace natural forest and thus contribute to environmental degradation, both directly within farms and indirectly beyond the farms.


While the integration of shade trees in agroforestry supports the growth of young cacao, shade becomes less critical in older cacao plantations, necessitating a dynamic approach to shade tree management. The changing response to shade regimes of cocoa plantation age highlights the importance of identifying the optimal combination and density of species to maintain high cocoa production.


Meta-analyses reveal the potential range of outcomes, both positive and negative in agroforestry systems, emphasising the need for a careful balance to achieve desirable ecosystem services without compromising profits, livelihoods, or ecological integrity (De Beenhouwer et al., 2013). Agroforestry leverages the interactions between different species within the system and has the potential to contribute to functional biodiversity, carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling, soil fertility, drought resistance, and provide natural pest control (Somarriba et al 2021; Asar 2006). For example, selected species create habitats for insects that control pests or increasing the canopy cover contributes to more shade, reducing evaporation and controlling temperature and soil moisture. Additionally, agroforestry has the potential to promote social and economic benefits like food security and income diversification through the planting of food or commercial crops, addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by cocoa farmers globally. However, the implementation of cocoa agroforestry systems comes with risks if not well planned or managed, particularly in the face of unusual weather patterns driven by changing climate. All the potential benefits of agroforestry can become suboptimal outcomes that may compromise profits, farming livelihoods, and ecological integrity. To mitigate these risks, careful consideration of the optimal combination and density of species, as well as a comprehensive understanding of local ecological and social conditions, is crucial in ensuring the success and resilience of cocoa agroforestry systems for ECOM and the farmer. 

Scaling-up cocoa agroforestry requires a collaborative effort involving co-learning, co-adapting, and co-managing between ECOM and cocoa farmers. The ultimate goal for ECOM is to improve the sustainability of cocoa production while addressing environmental, economic and social issues. Cocoa farmers, facing climate change impacts and increasing productivity demands, must adopt sustainable management practices that integrate multidisciplinary approaches. While we see our role to support in the sustainable transition, ultimately cocoa farmers need to decide if agroforestry can be a tool to meet their priorities and if so how to adapt it to best meet those needs. 


There is a diverse portfolio of agroforestry frameworks available, and ECOM uses those that are adapted to farmer needs and the local environment. We aimed to establish a definition for agroforestry across our origin-sourced supply chains by the end of 2023. Going forward we hope to focus on understanding the various intensity levels across systems and the associated outcomes from those different levels.


Below we standardise a minimum intensity system (Seedling Level) or highest intensity (Mature Level)  of agroforestry. Our aim is to set targets and confidently report on progress against the scale of agroforestry adoption in our supply chain.


ECOM Agroforestry Intensity levels:



Seedling Level

Sapling Level

Mature level

Land coverage

1 ha

1 ha

1 ha

Number of trees per Ha (not including cocoa)




Number of species (non-cocoa)

Not specified



Recommended species

Any combination of forest, legume and fruit trees determined through a discussion with the farmer

Multipurpose trees are deliberately selected through a discussion with the farmer to have more than one function, such as native shade, economic shade, and/or trees for intercropping, selected based on climate suitability and incremental revenue estimates.

Multipurpose trees are deliberately selected through a discussion with the farmer to have more than two functions, native shade, economic shade, and/or trees for intercropping, selected based on climate suitability and incremental revenue estimates. 

Minimum percentage of canopy cover required




Distances between cocoa trees / density of cocoa trees

≤ 4m x 4m (new planting)

≤ 3m x 3m (new planting)

≤ 3m x 3m (new planting)

Additional requirements

• Individual farmer goals drive agroforestry system purpose and are likely to impact design
• Engage with all local specifications shared through local agriculture bodies 

• Preferably all native species except for when intention is linked to food security and/or livelihood diversification which often require non-native tree species. Research suggests the ratio of native vs exotic species is rarely specified and up to local discretion. 

• Farmer technical training is of key importance to ensure well implemented farm management practices for successful agroforestry. This includes timely pruning, weeding, IPM and introducing other regenerative agriculture practices such as composting or vermiculture. Slow rollout to show short-term benefits and reduce risk to farmer livelihoods is recommended 

• Additional planting around farm boundaries or near water systems to create buffers. 

• Added benefit of short cycle food crops like legumes, chilli etc.

• Vertical stratification of the shade canopy is recommended

• Regular monitoring of farms. 


(1) ECOM programs have a large range, with some models aiming for more than 300 non-cocoa trees per ha

(2) Depending on the micro-climate, farmer priorities etc

(3) Varies considerably between origin operations as expected, and prioritises farmer choice and implementation intentions. Research suggests functional or ecological guilds should be a key consideration with species selection.

(4) Soil quality and moisture can be decisive factors creating variability





Asare, R. (2006). A review on cocoa agroforestry as a means for biodiversity conservation. In World Cocoa Foundation Partnership Conference, Brussels (Vol. 15).


Burgoa, G. (2020). Methods and Approaches for Scaling-Up the Positive Benefits of Cacao Agroforestry in Ecuador. Cornell University.


Dagar, J. C., & Tewari, V. P. (2017). Evolution of agroforestry as a modern science. Agroforestry: Anecdotal to modern science, 13-90.


De Beenhouwer, M., Aerts, R., & Honnay, O. (2013). A global meta-analysis of the biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits of coffee and cacao agroforestry. Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 175, 1-7.


Franzen, M., & Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2007). Ecological, economic and social perspectives on cocoa production worldwide. Biodiversity and Conservation, 16, 3835–3849.


Niether, W., Jacobi, J., Blaser, W. J., Andres, C., & Armengot, L. (2020). Cocoa agroforestry systems versus monocultures: a multi-dimensional meta-analysis. Environmental Research Letters15(10), 104085.


Somarriba, E., Peguero, F., Cerda, R., Orozco-Aguilar, L., López-Sampson, A., Leandro-Muñoz, M. E., ... & Sinclair, F. L. (2021). Rehabilitation and renovation of cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.) agroforestry systems. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 41, 1-19.

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