Côte d'Ivoire, a major cocoa exporter, is trying to climb the ladder

GRAND-BASSAM, Ivory Coast — The worker carefully peeled the shells off the cocoa beans to prevent them from breaking, then spilled them ...


GRAND-BASSAM, Ivory Coast — The worker carefully peeled the shells off the cocoa beans to prevent them from breaking, then spilled them into a metal tray that a colleague slid into an oven. The aroma of roasting beans filled the small shop in this seaside town, where the worker, Marie-France Kozoro, prepared the next batch for her journey to chocolate.

Nearly six million people depend on the cocoa industry in the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer. But most of them are not involved in processing the crispy, sour beans that are turned into a sweet treat.

Instead, they focus on growing, harvesting and selling raw cocoa beans to Europe and are mostly excluded from the financial benefits produced by the lucrative chocolate industry. Foreign-made chocolate, not raw cocoa, brings in the most revenue, and that money goes to the big foreign producers.

But in recent years, a new generation of Ivorian chocolatiers has been trying to change the equation. Funded in part by the government and international aid agencies, chocolatiers process cocoa beans into cocoa powder, drinks, chocolate bars and other products in Ivory Coast, hoping to develop a local industry chocolate whose income will benefit farmers and other cocoa workers like Ms. Kozoro.

At Choco+, the craft workshop where Ms. Kozoro works, a dozen employees roast and grind cocoa beans, which they transform into chocolate paste and cocoa tea, among other things.

“We are getting by little by little thanks to cocoa,” says Ms. Kozoro, 30, a single mother who worked long hours in a Chinese restaurant. At Choco+, she earns 50% more than the country’s monthly minimum wage, which is around $94, and her shift allows her to pick up her 3-year-old daughter from a school on the other side of the street at a reasonable time.

Similar efforts to boost a domestic chocolate industry have also sprung up in other cocoa producing countries in West Africa, including Ghana and Nigeria.

Compared to Europe, cocoa consumption in the region remains minimal – in Côte d’Ivoire it is estimated at around one pound per person per year – but is increasing for a range of cocoa products.

chocolate bars tend to be preferred by foreigners, while West Africans prefer other delicacies including cocoa pralines, cocoa butter, cocoa powder and chocolate spread. Contractors are also developing beers, liquors and vinegars with cocoa, as well as a chocolate drink mixed with bouye, the juice of the baobab fruit.

“The message around cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire has always been to export, export, export,” said Hervé Dobinou, head of Choco+. “But there has never been any communication about cocoa consumption here.”

The Ivorian government is working to promote more companies like Choco+ that produce a variety of cocoa products, as well as larger industrial companies that can help build a national chocolate industry.

“Processing beans in Côte d’Ivoire could mean more income for Ivorians, more jobs and new markets,” said Franck Koman, coordinator of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network, a non-profit organization representing producers. of cocoa.

The need for better wages is immense: Out of an estimated one million cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, nearly 550,000 live below the global poverty line, according to the world Bankand most of them have never tasted chocolate.

On a recent afternoon near Bouaflé, a town in central Ivory Coast, Sylvain Kofi Kona walked through his cocoa plantation and handed money to two young workers who had just cleared it of leaves and pods. of cocoa. Four years ago, a motorcycle accident mutilated his arm and left him lame.

Mr. Kona and his team have been growing cocoa as they have for decades. In the small fields, they cut the ripe pods from the cocoa trees in the spring and fall, then extract the pulpy white beans, which turn brown after drying on tarpaulins or banana leaves. They sell the beans to local cooperatives or to buyers in nearby markets.

The work is grueling and too complicated to be automated. Yields are low. The price of a pound of cocoa in Ivory Coast has fallen this year to 56 cents from 70 cents last year due to several factors, including fluctuations in demand and successful negotiations by the largest companies in the sector. Even so, many farmers like Mr. Kona sell at a lower price to buyers who offer cash rather than checks, because banks are not easy to find in rural parts of the country.

As the pain in his arm became unbearable this summer, Kona said he sold about 100 pounds of cocoa beans for about 35 cents a pound, well below market rate, so he could buy medication immediately.

Many farmers say growing other crops like cassava and maize is easier and more profitable and can help them feed their families better. But they stick to cocoa out of national pride.

“We were born into cocoa, it’s in our blood,” said François d’Assise Mbra, a cocoa farmer and friend of Mr Kona. “You cannot escape it. Cocoa pulls you.

To increase the incomes of cocoa farmers, the Ivorian government plans to invest around $1.6 billion in a vast overhaul of the industry. Part of this sum will finance companies that transform the beans into cocoa products.

The country’s economy minister, Adama Coulibaly, said he struggled to understand that more than 60 years after Ivory Coast’s independence, 70% of cocoa production leaves the country in the form of of raw cocoa beans, losing most of the income they could bring.

Although Côte d’Ivoire accounts for about 45% of the cocoa produced in the world, it receives only about 7% of the world’s revenue from the raw material.

Converting raw beans into more lucrative products that could be exported and also sold domestically could significantly reduce the national poverty rate by nearly 40 percent, Coulibaly added.

In order to attract more domestic customers, local companies are turning to attractive marketing arguments: they say that cocoa offers cardiovascular benefits and that its beans are aphrodisiacs. Studies showed that the two claims may have some merit.

At Choco+ on a recent morning, a 55-year-old customer, Benjamin Nda, purchased cocoa tea, cocoa butter and a few ounces of roasted beans. Mr Nda, a physics teacher who has diabetes, said eating five beans a day for the past few months had helped lower his blood pressure.

He and his wife, he said, also noticed other benefits. After his wife ate a bean one evening, he also ate one. Then they both went up to five beans, Mr. Nda said with a smile.

“Believe me,” he added shyly, “it was amazing.”

Loucoumane Coulibaly contributed reporting from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Mady Camara contributed research from Dakar, Senegal.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Côte d'Ivoire, a major cocoa exporter, is trying to climb the ladder
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