* Improved new variety yields 5-1/2 times in output - cocoa body
* Aims to achieve 1 million tonnes by 2018
* Expects to release draught resistant variety in 2-3 years
* Ondo state sees 90,000 tonnes output this year (Adds quotes, details)
By Chijioke Ohuocha
IBADAN, Nigeria, Aug 15 Nigeria is on track to increase cocoa output to 500,000 tonnes next year after distribution of new, higher-yielding seeds, rejuvenation of old farms and improvements in agricultural practices, the government's Cocoa Research Institute said.
In 2012, the government of Africa's biggest economy announced plans to double output by 2015 from 250,000 tonnes in an effort to diversify exports away from oil.
Lelia Dongo, a director at the institute, said output was expected to rise to 400,000 tonnes in 2014 as the new varieties distributed several years ago have started to flower and after most farmers adopted practices such as pruning overgrown trees to increase pod formation.
Nigeria, which has been the world's fourth-biggest cocoa grower, aims for output of 1 million tonnes by 2018, Dongo told Reuters on Friday.
Dongo also said Nigeria was setting up a private sector-led cocoa board before the end of the year to regulate prices and to monitor standards and warehouses.
"We will get there in 2015; we could even do more than the 500,000 tonnes," Dongo said in an interview.
The new cocoa varieties yield 1,500 kg to 2,500 kg per hectare and start to flower within two years. That compares with 350 kg to 450 kg for the old seeds, which take up to five years to flower, she said.
"The target is actually 1 million tonnes by 2018," Dongo said.
Dongo said output had increased from previous levels of about 250,000 tonnes per year to 300,000 tonnes in 2012 and 350,000 tonnes in 2013, citing figures from Federal Produce Inspection Service, the government export agency.
"I got the new variety in 2012 ... and planted 800 seedlings, 700 survived," said Omotayo Adeniyi, a 34-year old farmer with two acres of land in Ondo State. He said his trees had started to flower.
Output from Ondo, Nigeria's biggest cocoa-growing state, is likely to rise by 15 to 20 percent this year to 90,000 tonnes, Samuel Oyebade, chairman of the state's cocoa revolution project, told Reuters. Ondo has been producing 75,000 tonnes annually.
Dongo said the institute had distributed around 380,000 planting pods, each with 30 to 40 seeds, to farmers in two years at subsidised rates, as well as fertilisers, agricultural chemicals and training to improve farming practices.
The new cocoa variety, which took eight years to develop, is more resistant to fungal black pod disease, she said, adding that the institute was also working on a drought-resistant variety that would become available within two to three years.
In Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa grower, beans and product exports reached nearly 1.4 million tonnes by June 30 from the start of the season on Oct. 2, according to cocoa board data. (Reporting by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Tim Cocks and Pravin Char)