Young en­trepreneurs emerge in world’s co­coa leader

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Christin Roby

The smell of choco­late wafts from the door of an ar­ti­sanal shop that would not be out of place in Brook­lyn. Founder Dana Mroueh takes in the sun while rid­ing her sta­tion­ary bi­cy­cle­turned-co­coa grinder on an am­bi­tious jour­ney that be­gan just four months ago.

She wants to in­tro­duce Ivory Coast, the world’s lead­ing co­coa pro­ducer, to the taste of pro­cessed co­coa beans, in the form of choco­late bars that she says are 100 per­cent lo­cal.

The 27-year-old Mroueh is among an emerg­ing group of choco­late mak­ers who are try­ing to show this steamy West African coun­try that it can take more con­trol over its co­coa in­dus­try, from bean to bar, and win over the lo­cal mar­ket.

“I think it’s crim­i­nal for the planters and for the Ivo­rians who don’t know the taste of choco­late,” said Mroueh, an Ivo­rian of Le­banese de­scent who grew up watch­ing her grand­fa­ther, a for­mer pas­try shop owner, have a dif­fi­cult time sell­ing his choco­late. “We need to em­pha­size the value of the Ivo­rian ter­ri­tory.”

Her MonChoco Choco­late bars are priced for up­per-class con­sumers, with prices of around $5 apiece and ex­per­i­men­tal fla­vors in­clud­ing chili and sea salt.

Fel­low choco­late maker Axel Em­manuel is aim­ing at the other end of the mar­ket. The 32-year-old says he wants to dis­pel the myth that choco­late is ex­clu­sively for the rich.

“We’ve de­cided to of­fi­cially make the most in­ex­pen­sive choco­late bar on the African con­ti­nent,” said Em­manuel, who was rec­og­nized by the coun­try’s pres­i­dent as the 2015 Young En­tre­pre­neur of the Year. His In­stant Choco­late bars go for about 30 cents apiece.

Em­manuel sees po­ten­tial in Ivory Coast’s 10 per­cent eco­nomic growth last year, and in a small but grow­ing mid­dle class in many parts of Africa.

As with many of Africa’s agri­cul­tural re­sources, the true earn­ings come from their trans­for­ma­tion, he said, and farm­ers ought to ben­e­fit from the grow­ing lo­cally made choco­late mar­ket as well.

Ivory Coast has long been known for its raw co­coa pro­duc­tion, pro­duc­ing about 35 per­cent of the world’s sup­ply. But less than a third of what it pro­duces is turned into fin­ished prod­ucts at home.

Now the gov­ern­ment is en­cour­ag­ing change. Re­cently, bill­boards spon­sored by the Na­tional Cof­fee and Co­coa Coun­cil sprouted through­out Abidjan, the coun­try’s largest city, urg­ing the con­sump­tion of Ivo­rian choco­late.

Pres­i­dent Alas­sane Ou­at­tara has said that by 2020, he hopes the coun­try will process at least half of its raw co­coa.

Choco­late mak­ers say the task can be done with lit­tle money and lim­ited space, but some co­coa ex­perts say many farm­ers don’t yet have the skills to trans­form their raw prod­uct. “It’s a lot eas­ier to teach farm­ers good agri­cul­tural prac­tices,” said Suzanne Ndongo-Seh, di­rec­tor of the World Co­coa Foun­da­tion’s Co­coa Liveli­hoods Pro­gram.

She warned that choco­late mak­ers will have to work hard to ex­pand their clien­tele in Africa, es­pe­cially among more ru­ral pop­u­la­tions. Even though 70 per­cent of the world’s co­coa beans orig­i­nate in places like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Nige­ria, choco­late is still con­sid­ered a lux­ury.

Some of Ivory Coast’s young choco­late mak­ers are pitch­ing the healthy side of their prod­ucts to win over con­sumers.

“Our prod­ucts are raw, not cooked, not roasted to con­serve all the ben­e­fits of the co­coa bean be­cause it’s a prod­uct very, very rich in nu­tri­ents, to con­serve also the an­tiox­i­dants, min­er­als, and that’s es­sen­tial,” Mroueh said.

Olga Ye­nou, a for­mer em­ployee for the French choco­late man­u­fac­turer Ce­moi, called co­coa good for the heart and ner­vous sys­tem. “It’s good when used against stress, against fa­tigue, and it will be a shame to con­sider co­coa just like a candy,” she said.

Her Tafissa com­pany turns lo­cal beans into fin­ished prod­ucts in­clud­ing a co­coa-and-cashew spread and a co­coa pow­der drink mix. Pro­duc­ing choco­late bars is a fu­ture am­bi­tion, she said.

In a young mar­ket, she be­lieves there’s room for more lo­cal en­trepreneurs.

“We are all ac­tors try­ing to spread the love of co­coa amongst Ivo­rians,” Ye­nou said. “I be­lieve the ad­ven­ture will be long, as we are just get­ting started.”

RE­BECCA BLACKWELL—THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Above and be­low, farmer Ali­dou Oue­draogo ar­ranges dry­ing co­coa beans May 31, 2011, as he prepares to cover them for the night, on a co­coa farm out­side the vil­lage of Fan­golo, near Duek­oue, Ivory Coast.

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