Ivory Coast buoyed by record agricultural harvest

Good news is pouring in from plantations in Ivory Coast, the west African country is racking up record harvests for cocoa and cashew nuts of which it is a top global producer.

New policies aimed at “modernising agriculture” and “making it more competitive” are bearing fruit and at the same time providing a bigger income for farmers, said Siaka Coulibaly, the chief of staff to the agriculture minister.

At the beginning of October the government proudly announced a record cocoa crop for a market that has been boosted by growing demand for chocolate in Asia. Ivory Coast is the top producer with 35 percent of global cocoa output.

The 1.74 million tonnes of cocoa harvested in the 2013-2014 season beat the previous record of 1.51 million tonnes set in 2010-2011.

Cocoa planters have benefitted from consistently favourable weather on top of gains from the planting in recent years of a new variety of cocoa tree, known as Mercedes, which offers a yield between twice and three times as high as that of old weary trees., noted Edouard N’Guessan, director general of the national Coffee and Cocoa Council.

Government spokesman Bruno Kone was already looking forward to promising results in the coming season, 2014-2015.

In the cashew nut sector, the harvest has far exceeded the primary objective of “preventing the deforestation of desert areas”, according to Malamine Sanogo, who is in charge of production nationwide.

The 550,000 tonnes of cashew nuts harvested this year are again a record. Sanogo claimed that it would be “very easy” to double production and snatch the global lead away from India “within five years”.

– ‘Powerful machine’ –

Ivory Coast has in 2014 even seen a record crop of cotton, totalling 400,000 tonnes, which is twice the output achieved five years ago, but the country remains a minor player in this sector compared with others.

The sole dark patch in a glowing picture arises from sluggish coffee production of 100-120,000 tonnes, an amount four times lower than in the 1990s, when Ivory Coast ranked third among global producers.

After those glory days, Ivory Coast endured a long decade of political and military crises, including a rebellion that effectively partitioned the country for eight years and hit the economy in agricultural zones. Thousands of people were killed during these troubles.

In November 2010, veteran economist and politician Alassane Ouattara won a long-postponed presidential election, but the outcome of the poll was violently disputed by followers of the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, at the cost of some 3,000 more lives until Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011.

Ouattara’s government is “setting up (…) a powerful machine” to rule and reform, according to Coulibaly, who argues that the improvements in agriculture are “the logical outcome of reforms”.

The authorities have guaranteed a relatively high purchase price to farmers growing cocoa, coffee, cashew nuts and cotton, with a view to a fairer distribution of income.

After decades of resenting murky management, peasant farmers now benefit from a clearer pricing system and have begun to take greater care of their crops and put more land into cultivation, said a World Bank expert, adding that such practices have led to “a systematic growth in production”.

– ‘A bit more money’ –

“We are very pleased by stable prices,” said Kouao N’dre, chairman of an agricultural cooperative in the centre of the country, but he still hoped that the guaranteed income would be raised.

“We certainly earn a bit more money. But in light of the cost of living, we don’t feel it,” he added.

Figures from the economy ministry show that the income of cocoa and coffee producers rose by 7.5 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Government spokesman Kone ventured to forecast a rise in income for the farmers of 24 percent from 2013 to 2014 because of the “very strong” positive effects of reform.

Such a change would be significant in Ivory Coast, where agriculture accounts for 22 percent of the gross domestic product, more than 50 percent of export income and, above all, two-thirds of the job market and income structure among the population, according to the World Bank.

An official at an international aid agency welcomed the government’s agriculture reforms.

“There are many indicators that are going in a good direction,” said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Political opposition groups declined to comment on the government’s agricultural reforms.

Ivorian authorities are also planning factories to process some agricultural products at home with the goal of raising the value of exports compared with earnings from exporting raw commodities.

The government expects about 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in foreign investment for such projects by the end of this year and a similar level in 2015.

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