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