War and rain conspire against cocoa growers

Unfavourable rains could not have come at a worse time for Ivory Coast’s cocoa growers, already grappling with the effects of a civil war that has torn the west African country in two.

The combination could ruin this season’s cocoa crop, the economic lifeblood of the former French colony which accounts for 40% of the total world output.

Several cocoa-producing areas have been occupied by rebels, forcing producers to cross roadblocks to get their beans to the exporters. Compounding their problems, the rains, instead of coming at the usual time in September, deluged down in October, when the cocoa harvest had already begun.

In December, business watchdog Coface downgraded Ivory Coast from C to its lowest category, D, warning that ”the general climate of insecurity puts at risk the cocoa sector, the main source of revenue for the country.”

Cyril Osio, who is in charge of provisioning in San Pedro for the African Cocoa Company (SACO), says the repercussions of the four-month-old war on the cocoa crop will be difficult to quantify until the full harvest has been pulled in.

Fortunately for the growers however, the rebel conquest of their regions came late enough for the harvest to already be well advanced.

The western region of Man was only taken by the rebels at the end of November, allowing good progress to be made with the harvest beforehand. The Grabo region was not occupied until the start of January.

”The problems in the west arrived sufficiently late,” says Osio. Still, every day in San Pedro, Ivory Coast’s cocoa port on the Atlantic coast, whole lorry-loads of cocoa beans are being sent back to the plantations after failing exporters’ quality controls.

One exporter here complains that many of the beans arriving from the plantations are simply mouldy.

The wet conditions have made it harder for the growers to dry their damp beans, and made transport even trickier on the bad roads heading into the town.

”It’s above all the rain that has caused the quality to decline,” Osio says. ”From the day the harvest started, the humidity has been extremely high.”

Osio is a buyer for the Societe Africaine de Cacao, a subsidiary of the chocolate giant Barry Callebaut. He concludes that this season’s harvest is now ”certain to be worse than last year’s in terms of quality.”

The north of the country, which is under the solid control of the rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), is not known as a cocoa-growing region. The one place where there is production, in Vavoua, is itself considered to be of only marginal importance.

Meanwhile, the government still holds the Soubre region, the centre of cocoa production, and it too has reported a decline in production from the year earlier.

But cocoa experts note that war and the elements are not solely to blame for the industry’s woes, since quality began to decline with the liberalisation of the cocoa trade in August 1999 following demands by international donors.

This led to greater price competition and pressure to produce larger quantities of beans. Osio says the system is better elsewhere. ”Ghana, which still has a state system, has a better quality cocoa.” – Sapa-AFP

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