Ivory Coast: A bean that’s got stuck...
Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa producer. Some 40% of the cocoa beans trading on international markets come from local plantations. With more than 22 million inhabitants, 1,794 million tonnes of cocoa are produced each year (according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) – how many chocolate factories? Two! PFI (Professional Food Industry) and Cémoi.
"What we do is astonishing. We work every day of the year to produce cocoa beans but we have no hand in turning it into chocolate. Or at least into no more chocolate than we can eat. When you think about it, if it weren't for us there wouldn't even be any chocolate!" This is how an agricultural worker at the N’Douci cooperative, at a small village northwest of Abidjan, described the contradictory world of cocoa in Ivory Coast.
Most of the beans produced in this West African country are exported to multinationals abroad: "We would like to set up small local chocolate production plants but we don't have the resources, capital or knowledge to do it. The government could help us, with incentives for producers, for example. However, it is not in its interest to change anything, but just to continue doing what it's doing in foreign markets and to enrich its own backers. Without thinking what it all means for the back-breaking work in the fields. Our work is crucial but it is undervalued psychologically and economically, " says an old farmworker with a lined, weatherbeaten face.
Although we here on the Ivory Coast make the most cocoa, it is the Swiss, followed by the Irish and the British who are its main consumers. How to explain this difference? It all has to do with purchasing power, obviously. GDP per inhabitant in Switzerland is about 85,000 dollars while 43.6% of the population of Ivory Coast live below the poverty line. "Many of us have never seen a chocolate bar, and those who have can usually not afford it," says – disappointed – a young worker from N’Douci. It’s a fact: an Ivory Coast bean travels the world to be processed into chocolate before returning to Ivory Coast at prohibitive prices: a chocolate bar costs between 2,000 and 2,500 CFA francs, which is 3 to 4 euros. These are prices that farmers simply cannot afford, as each farmer cultivates 2 to 5 hectares at most to earn just 1,000 CFA francs per kilo of beans (price guaranteed by the government). We can rightly ask how their families survive.
Only in recent years has Ivory Coast timidly launched a local chocolate market supplied by the only two processing plants in Abidjan: Professional Food Industry (PFI) and Cémoi. Which lends credence to the data provided by Nader Skaf, the owner of PFI and a 3rd generation Lebanese and Ivory Coast entrepreneur. "We opened the first and only 100%-local (Abidjan) chocolate factory four years ago with a wide range of products. Our goal is to make products at prices that are affordable for local Ivory Coast people. We will be selling some of our chocolate at only 25 CFA francs!. This is why we are looking directly at local cooperatives to buy the raw materials: cocoa and cashews. The results in recent years have been promising,", says the young plant director, smiling. With 200 employees, our Ivory Coast chocolate factory has had to cope with exponential demand, doubling its output since 2012. "The product we sell the most is chocolate creams: 700 tonnes a year. This year, thanks to acquiring new machines, we should be able to double our output yet again," says Nader Skaf, adding: “What is most gratifying for us is that 70% of our consumers are Ivory Coast residents!”
With initiatives such as the PFI’s, the Ivory Coast chocolate market is taking its first steps towards independence. The rest of the road remains, however, long and windy.
Valentina Giulia Milani