Cola nuts have been an important trade item in the West African region for many centuries. The cola nut is valued in many cultures as a sign of friendship and peace and is consumed (“broken”) at reunions, during meetings, ceremonies and festivals (see also Section 3.5). It is also the only stimulant allowed to Muslims. For this reason there is a heavy trade of cola from the humid southern regions to the northern arid parts of West Africa. There are several different species of cola which are traded. In southern regions, the most commonly consumed species is Cola acuminata. However, Cola nitida is preferred in Northern parts, thus C. nitida is more important in the long distance and export trade. Cola acuminata is the preferred species in western Cameroon, for example, and its trade is limited to this region. Cola nitida, however, is produced though generally not consumed in this region; what is collected is traded to the North.
Cola trees are common to humid regions throughout West Africa, although there are some regions which specialise in cola nut commerce. Information on cola nut production and marketing is scattered and not considered reliable. There are few statistics kept by government agencies as it is not as important a national crop as coffee, cocoa, or other export crops. In Cameroon, for example, Nkongmeneck (1985) reports that approximately 22,500 tonnes were produced in 1981 (of which, 20,400 tonnes entered commerce). An estimated 1,100 tonnes were exported in 1980 (worth approximately 182.6 million FCFA), primarily to Nigeria and Chad. Nkongmeneck (1985) adds that government data are replete with gaps, and thus are, at best, only indicative. He adds that the price of cola for the export market appears to be lower than those for internal markets. He postulates that this is because of poor internal market organisation and problems associated with cola nut conservation. In Ghana, the Forestry Department estimated the value of cola exports to be 3.4 million cedis in 1975, the majority (83%) of which was sold to Nigeria (Forestry Department Annual Report 1983).
Throughout the region the marketing of cola nuts is highly specialised. For example, in Western Cameroon, the cola trade involves producers who sell at the farm or village site to traders who process the cola nuts. They then sell the nuts to wholesale traders who in turn sell to retail traders. The long distance trade of cola generally involves even more transactions.
Cola production and trade, though it is largely ignored by national statistics, appears to provide an important source of income for many rural people. As was noted above, the production and trade of cola is somewhat localised. In Cameroon, for example, the northwest region produces the greatest quantities for commerce. Soup Nguifo (1982) estimates, for example, that 3,000 tonnes of Cola nitida are traded from Kumba to the North each year. More than half the cola produced in this region is purchased on-farm. Detailed information on the prices received for cola at different stages show that on average the selling price by retail traders for cola is three and a half times that received by farmers.
In another study in Western Cameroon, Champaud (1983) estimated the importance of cola nut production for rural farm households. For some of the study households, cola nut provided greater returns than coffee production. Cola nuts sales contributed between 5% and 37% of the household’s cash revenue. (These figures were not based on a large sample of households; as such, they serve only to illustrate the importance of cola production for some households.) One study estimates that 30% of cola that is produced is consumed by the household (Soup Nguifo 1982). Cashman (1987) notes that, for women in Southwestern Nigeria, cola trade brings the highest profits (when compared to all other economic activities), but it requires a high initial investment and thus is limited to those with capital resources.
Cola nuts are sold in most rural and urban markets. In cola producing regions there are markets which specialise in the bulk trade of cola and which are geared to long distance wholesale traders. For example, in northwestern Cameroon, there are several central regional markets at which cola trade is concentrated. These markets cater to bulk traders who are involved in the northern trade of cola. For example, in two central markets, 4,550 tonnes of cola nuts were sold on one market day. By comparison, in a secondary market, 0.60 tonnes were sold in one day. The long distance trade of cola earns the highest profits, but is controlled by traders from the north who have access to transport and capital resources. Most sellers are involved in small-scale trade. Soup Nguifo’s (1982) study reveals that there is a greater demand for cola than there is supply, but despite this, old cola trees are not being replaced in the western region of Cameroon. He suggests that this is because returns to the farmer are too low.