Ivory Coast urg­ing change: co­coa is prof­itable, but rice feeds the hun­gry

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY JORIS FIOR­ITI AND CHRISTOPHE KOFFI

Ver­dant rice pad­dies stretch as far as the eye can see around Ag­boville, the heart of a drive for food self-suf­fi­ciency in Ivory Coast, bet­ter known as the world’s top pro­ducer of co­coa — for ex­port.

Less than an hour north of the eco­nomic cap­i­tal Abid­jan, thou­sands of croak­ing frogs ac­com­pany the Ag­boville rice farm­ers who pro­duce some 600 tonnes a year.

They have an ad­van­tage over the bulk of the coun­try’s rice grow­ers — a decades­old dam that guar­an­tees wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion.

“Eighty-five per­cent of Ivo­rian rice still re­lies on rain,” says Ya­couba Dem­bele, head of the Na­tional Of­fice of Rice Grow­ing De­vel­op­ment, urg­ing greater in­vest­ment in wa­ter man­age­ment.

He is bat­tling to get Ivo­rian farm­ers to grow food crops rather than the more prof­itable co­coa and cashews for ex­port they fa­vor, even though the fer­tile west African coun­try is strug­gling to feed a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Last year, Ivory Coast had to im­port 900,000 tonnes of rice to sat­isfy do­mes­tic de­mand, even af­ter a record harvest of 1.34 mil­lion tonnes.

“Grow­ers have let them­selves be lured by profit, aban­don­ing sus­te­nance crops,” laments Jean-Bap­tiste Koffi, pres­i­dent of the Fed­eral Union of Ivory Coast Con­sumers.

“They’ve be­come in­volved in spec­u­la­tive (crops) like co­coa and more re­cently rub­ber, even as peo­ple are dy­ing of hunger and get­ting only one meal a day,” he says.

Co­coa alone ac­counts for more than half of Ivory Coast’s ex­port in­come, while it is also the world’s sec­ond-largest pro­ducer of cashew nuts.

The high cost of im­ported food has stoked anger, es­pe­cially at a time when the econ­omy of the for­mer French colony is boom­ing, with an­nual GDP growth reach­ing nine per­cent since a decade of un­rest ended in 2011.

The gov­ern­ment wants to at­tain “rice self-suf­fi­ciency” by next year af­ter learn­ing from ri­ots in 2008 sparked by sky­high prices for rice, milk, meat and fish — all im­ported with du­ties ex­ceed­ing 50 per­cent.

The drive is a con­stant re­frain for Pres­i­dent Alas­sane Ou­at­tara as he cam­paigns for re-elec­tion in Oc­to­ber, along with a call for the coun­try to join the ranks of emerg­ing na­tions by 2020.

‘Nat­u­rally bet­ter’

But do­mes­tic rice is prov­ing a hard sell, no­tably be­cause it is more ex­pen­sive than im­ports of the grain and also be­cause it is not as white as its for­eign ri­vals.

Pop­u­lar for­mer soc­cer player Di­dier Otokore, now a civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist, says Ivo­rian rice is “nat­u­rally bet­ter” and does not con­tain the preser­va­tives that im­ports do.

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