Cadbury is to pump millions of pounds into a project to protect Ghana's cocoa farming industry to safeguard crops vital to its operations in Birmingham - where it is axing 200 jobs.

The dairy group has come under heavy fire from union officials fighting the proposed closure of a Cadbury plant at Keynsham, near Bristol, with the loss of 500 jobs.

A further 200 are set to go at Cadbury's huge Bournville plant under plans to axe a total of 2,500 staff in confectionery as the group seeks to boost margins. Much of the work is going to Poland.

However, Cadbury today confirmed it will be investing £44 million into cocoa farming in Ghana, India, Indonesia and the Caribbean in order to protect the future supply of cocoa, one of the most important ingredients in the manufacture of many of its most profitable lines.

Cadbury says its move comes after researchers found that the average production for a cocoa farmer has plunged to only 40 per cent of potential yield, seriously threatening supplies of the plant.

The Cadbury-funded study by the University of Sussex and the University of Accra in Ghana also revealed that the average age of farmers is 51, and the profession is becoming less attractive to the next generation.

The chocolate maker said a reliable supply of Ghanaian cocoa beans was vital because they were used for all UK chocolate products to give them their distinctive taste.

According to Cadbury, cocoa from the country fetches a ten per cent premium on the world commodity markets because of its superior quality.

Around 70 per cent of the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership's funds will be invested into small farms and farming villages in Ghana. Other farmers in India, Indonesia and the Caribbean will also benefit.

Matt Shattock, president of Cadbury Britain, Ireland, the Middle East and Africa, said: "Sustainable cocoa production is vital to Cadbury's commercial success: not simply the supply of our most important ingredient but guaranteeing a reliable, long-term source of the right quality cocoa, produced to the high standards our business, customers and our consumers expect.

"The majority of the partnership fund will be invested into small farms and farming villages in Ghana."

James Boateng, managing director of Cadbury Ghana, added: "I grew up on a cocoa farm, and owe my education to the prosperity which cocoa brought to my family, and look forward to contributing to the future of cocoa farming.

"In Ghana there is a phrase 'coco obatanpa' which means 'Cocoa is a good parent; it looks after you'.

"We hope with this initiative Cadbury and our partners can be a good parent to cocoa."

Cadbury is initially investing £1 million in 2008 as a "seed fund" to establish the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, with annual funding levels rising to a steady rate of £5 million from 2010.