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On life and cocoa in the Ivory Coast

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | September 24, 2013

This week I returned from my fourth trip to Africa, this time to the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire, but I gave up on pronouncing it…). I went for a project of ICARF and Mars Chocolate, aiming to understand how to improve cocoa productivity there, but I learned much more about Africa, development and cocoa.

I arrived to the capital city, Abidjan which has high-rise buildings and neon signs and at night looks like New York; but in the morning it more closely resembles Detroit. Of course, the hotel was modern, and we left on an executive jet to San Pedro, which is close to the cocoa farms. The flight took 15 minutes and we saved about 5 hours by car. In San Pedro I was introduced to the real country.


The thing that struck me first about the Ivory Coast is that the name is deceiving. The elephants and jungle are mostly gone – instead we have cocoa, rubber and palm oil and lone trees surrounded by tall weeds. The weather is nice — it is the “rainy” season and once in a while rain pours, but most of the time it is sunny and the thermostat of the place is stuck on 77F.

The rain has two negative byproducts. First mosquitos, I was warned and I took my malaria pills regularly so that my smell can repel an elephant. The second is the road situation. Some of the roads are partially covered with asphalt- and some of the potholes (actually craters) turn to lakes, which harms cars and slows traffic. The soil is very heavy so the dirt roads are saturated with water- and is very slippery which leads the drivers (even I could be a driving school instructor here) lose control from time to time. Thank goodness that we did not have much rain, when it occurs such mishaps are frequent and so car ownership is low. The truck drivers however are actually very professional and we were fortunate to have a wonderful driver.

In San Pedro I gave my presentations for a workshop in a nice resort on the beach, where I took long walks every morning.  The real excitement occurred when we went to the fields towards the southern city called Subre, where we stayed for a night. This city was the ‘real Africa,’ as they say. This is the typical image that development economists’ portray- a zillion unemployed young males all over the place, people living in rudimentary huts, chicken and goats all over etc. The weather is good, food is cheap, and the police are all over so it is very peaceful. This is the region where many of the cocoa farms are located.  We visited four farms where I realized what is going on on-the-ground.

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The farmers in the region once grew coffee, then they moved to cocoa (30 years ago) and now they are considering whether to continue with cocoa or switch to rubber and palm oil. We wanted to understand what they think about the crops and what would lead to the adoption of improved cocoa varieties. We also wanted to understand what would it take to increase the cocoa area. More than 100 villagers participated in the meeting with us (see the picture below — the head of the village raises his finger), and followed the local protocol.

First introductions, where we first told them about ourselves, the important people were introduced (the head of the village, the oldest person (young looking 92)  and the heads of the different tribes (“we are like brothers”) they told us the history of the village and then we had a dialogue. The discussion was in French and I spoke through a translator. They grow both rubber and cocoa and we were interested to understand what motivated adoption or crop switch. When you hear them, you would think that they had advanced degrees in economics – they said that cocoa was once ‘King’ but now if you plant 10 hectares of rubber you drive a car but with cocoa only a motorcycle.

When we asked if they would adopt more advanced cocoa, their answer was, ‘if it pays we are game’. Fortunately, there are new varieties of cocoa that are being introduced in this part of Africa and in the future there will be diversified systems with cocoa, as well as rubber and palm oil. In another village, which was poorer, the villagers were mostly migrants from Burkina Faso and other countries.

There are several indicators of poverty, not only daily income. There are other concrete measures of poverty in my view: if you are really rich, and Muslim, you have many wives, each with their own house. Then comes the car and access to electricity and a television. Richer people have shiny motorcycles while the poor drive cheap Chinese bicycles. Poor people wear T-shirts and surprisingly with American logos, including some Universities. Rich people have glasses and fancy pens in their shirt pockets. It is amazing that the poor must all have good eyesight, as no one wears glasses. I was very glad that one of my students, Moon Parks, is pursuing research on eyeglass adoption, because it was clear that measuring poverty only by income is very limited.

My visit left me with an optimistic view on the future of farming in the Ivory Coast. There is a growing international demand for the product they produce that will result in support for improved productivity but I do not foresee the emergence of large plantations. We can expect some natural selection where more able farmers may become somewhat larger but altogether we will see a community of relatively small farmers that grow several crops at a higher degree of efficiency than at the present.

There are many other encouraging signs. The spread of cellphones led to fast transition of information and knowledge and desire for change. I was encouraged to see a woman running a rubber nursery in a traditional village. However, the bigger challenge of the Ivory Coast, and West Africa is population growth. I met several people with incomes of less than $4/day, but with more than 7 children. If there is one failure of our research in development is to better understand population growth and how to develop strategies to contain it.

I believe it will be a priority for our college and the university to have a positions and targeted research in population, the environment and development, and in spite of the sensitivity of the topic, to think about how to address it especially in vulnerable areas.

Comments to “On life and cocoa in the Ivory Coast

  1. In this episode, we learn that children should not engage in dangerous child labour and even if they perform light tasks for the household, these shouldn’t be done at the expense of going to school. Kweku, a boy of 12, is cutting down a tree when Mr Dubango, the teacher protects him from the falling tree; he then explains the type of work which is forbidden for children to do and mentions the light work which children can do only outside school hours. The episode ends with Kweku joining his classmates after a long period of absence due to the fact that he was helping his father on the cocoa farm

  2. Quite interesting read, but mostly speculative and certainly unrealistic views of actual realities, especially for a short stay visitor whose assessments of details are usually borrowed or from scatchy uncorroborated observations. For example, almost all African tribes are poligamous, most common among rural dwellers and this was not as bad as it is seen in the eye of American or Europeans and there are pros and cons to this.
    Though I am not an Ivorian, but for a country that leads the world in cocoa production, the description of the hard work of its decent farmers could have been more decent than presented and totally unbalanced. Except for the war, urbanization in the Ivory was on a rapid increase compared to most African countries and if writer was as good a reader as a traveler knowing that Abidjan gave up the capital status to Yamoussoukro couple of decades ago would have been common knowledge. But thanks for a debate provoking presentation.

  3. Ahhhh….Yes! The typical European response to Black Africans in heavily populated areas in their own lands: “There are too many of them.” Unfortunately, as a wise man once said, “one of the worse things you can be is predictable,” and aren’t Europeans just that! Africans love and care for their children and imbue them with a sense of community, love for humanity, common decency, and a zeal for life. That is why Africa has never produced an Adolf Hitler. So to you social Darwinists, pigment deficient, thin dermis with a touch of white liberal eugenics…stay out of Africa.

  4. You are lucky to have taken the executive jet. We took the local route in a truck weaving through the craters you speak of, causing us to have to stop during the 5 hour drive for me to take 3 vomit pit stops!


  5. David, I really enjoyed reading this informative and well written blog. I agree with you that population growth is a tremendous problem for overcoming poverty. Moreover if the families disintegrate and the women are left alone with great number of kids. A huge problem in Central America. The kids grow up on their own in the streets and learn the things they should not learn. That is why they call the spiral of poverty Is it also the case in Africa?


  6. I would just like to make a few comments regarding what Mr McIntire wrote.

    He mention the poor state and maintenance of trucks, which is correct. Perhaps a further element of information would be that new trucks are by-and-large way too expensive for anyone to purchase them in Ivory Coast or any neighbouring country for that matters. Most trucks offered for sale in that region are used trucks from EU countries and these are sold in Africa because they are too old and unsafe and damaged to legally roam the streets of Europe. That is the sad reality of Africa as the last buyer on a trucks long journey.

    The issue of the “nationality” or “origin” of the workers on the cocoa farms is an extremely serious one. African boundaries, as everyone knows, were to a large extent drawn arbitrarily during colonial times and at the time of independence and did not take that much account of ethnicity etc.

    The founder of modern Ivory Coast had a simple and quite enlightened answer to the issue. He essentially declared that anyone living in Ivory Coast would qualify for citizenship. Ivory Coast was then booming and by the late seventies had an income per capita significantly higher than other West African nations. “Le vieux” as he was nicknamed had many well documented failings especially late in life and including Yamoussoukro, but some fundamental things he did get right: American readers, do keep in mind that US law has always stated that a legal immigrant to the USA may claim citizenship after five years, your parents did (and further, there have historically been waves of legalization of illegal immigrants initiated by Presidents both Republican and Democrat.

    This worked very well until international cocoa prices started a historic down-trend, and also coincided with the death of the founder, political trouble started in conjunction with stagnating or declining incomes. North and South opposition emerged and amid a grave recession of the cocoa economy, irresponsible political leaders decided to redefine what constituted “Ivoirité”, which was code for trying to expel/repel those workers from the north and Burkina Faso which had been instrumental in making Ivory Coast a relatively successful country previously. Civil war ensued, to cut a long story short.

    The point here is that by and large the new leadership of Ivory Coast following the defeat of Gbagbo is actually from the “North” (identical ethnic group in the North of Ivory Coast and in the South of Burkina Faso). So I am not entirely convinced that authorities will pay no attention to the needs of “foreigners”. They would have been called Ivoirians in earlier times.

  7. Professor Zilberman, Thanks for an interesting post. A few comments.

    You are perhaps too generous in describing the WA truck drivers as “very professional”; rates of traffic accidents per person-km in WA are very high and the irresponsible practices (badly maintained trucks, speeding, driving many more hours than are safe, overloading) of truckers are one major cause.

    Historically, many of the people working and living in the cocoa (coffee, rubber, cashew) fields of Cote d’Ivoire are from neighboring Burkina Faso, Mali or Guinea, so the rate of population growth in the country (not per family, obviously) depends significantly on labor migration. Migration explains the disinterest of the local authorities in investing in social services (why spend money on foreigners ?) and some of the disinclination of migrants to invest in their houses (why improve your house when it can be destroyed or expropriated at any time ?).

    The productivity issue has to be understood with respect to the vintage of the tree stocks and to the mixed cropping nature of the systems you observed. (Much of the cocoa you saw around Soubre would have been planted in the late 1980s/early 1990s, so the trees are beginning 3rd their decade of production in which their best years are behind them, though they have some years to bear before being replaced). In the early years of a given vintage, yields / tree are rising and there is little reason to invest in yield-improving inputs for that reason and because of the opportunity cost of the farmer’s labor in other crops on his farm. In the later years of the vintage, yields tend to fall and the farmer may be better off in moving, in planting new trees, or in switching to other crops.

    Some of your commenters may not have quite understood that the word “plantation” in this context is misleading. Plantation in Cote d’Ivoire should not be understood as “large estate”. The great majority of cocoa farms in CIV are small and are operated with family labor, some hired labor, little farm mechanization, and few purchased inputs.

    You may wish to advise the ICRAF people on cocoa pricing. They recently told me that, in discussions with the Ivorian authorities, the official goal was to allow the farmers 60% of FOB. This is too low. It is entirely feasible to achieve 70% of FOB, following the rule of 70% for the farmer, a 20% export tax, and a 10% margin for transport and handling from the farm to the port. Another 10% of the current world price (call it perhaps $2250/ton FOB San Pedro) will buy a lot of eye exams and it is entirely feasible despite what the national authorities may say.

    Another issue is the persistent overvaluation of the national currency, known as the CFA franc, which has been fixed at 656 CFAF / Euro since 1999. Just as the southern Europeans are forced to submit to an unrealistic internal adjustment as the price of being in the Euro zone, the Ivorian cocoa farmers are forced to lose a substantial amount of their (already too low) share of the FOB price, which is itself too low in CFAF terms because of the Euro parity.

    I live and work in Nairobi now, not too far from ICRAF, so please drop me a line if you are here and we can invite you to give a seminar.

    John Murray McIntire
    International Livestock Research Institute

    PS If you have any French-speaking graduate students, you might ask one of them to make an English summary of Francois Ruf’s magisterial “Booms and Crises du Cacao”, which is one of the greatest books ever written on tropical agriculture. Some of Ruf’s work is in English, notably his 2007 ODI paper which discusses the intensification/extensification issue.

  8. Just a word on population growth. Cote d’Ivoire’s demographics have run pretty close to the African average: already, average births per woman has fallen from around 7 to around 4. The UN is projecting that, on current trends, population will stabilize by about 2050: at about 70 million for Cote d’Ivoire, and about 3 billion for Africa, in both cases about triple the current level.

    But most of this is water under the bridge: if tomorrow everyone started having 2 kids per woman, today’s masses of children would drive much of the population increase. So it’s less about finding strategies to slow population growth — except in Congo, which has shown no progress on population as in many other areas — but rather about creating livelihoods for today’s young and their offspring.

  9. Interesting read but a few comments. You say you learned a lot about Africa, but in the next sentence you tell us that Abidjan is the capital of Ivory Coast, which is a mistake (it’s Yamoussoukro). The upcountry town you want to is almost certainly Soubre.

    I think you were being sarcastic about the ‘real Africa’ but Abidjan is of course a much a part of Africa as the rural village huts in the forest. Africa is increasingly urban, and around a quarter of Ivory Coast’s population lives in Abidjan.

    Most people would say that the farmers who migrated west came to plant cocoa and coffee. It’s not a simple coffee-to-cocoa-to-rubber. Coffee has certainly fallen by the way side – it’s hard work, world prices are low, and Ivorians grew robusta which has fallen out of fashion.

    The comments on small holder farmers are a little too general for my liking – things vary per crop. Cocoa is one of those crops that simply doesn’t work on large farms – farmers need to know and care for the individual trees.

    Finally – Muslims aren’t the only ones with multiple wives. The baoule, who make up a large part of the (internal) migrants in the west of Ivory Coast are often polygamous as well.

    Ivory Coast’s farmers have been a strong part of the country’s success prior to the 1990s. The country is the world’s biggest cocoa producer, Africa’s biggest natural rubber producer, and no.2 in the world for cashew exports. Diversity is to be encouraged, as well as getting a fair price.

    • John, your comment is on point. I am Ivorian and I find everything you said to be true. Abidjan as well as other cities such as Bouake and Yamoussokro are part of the “real Africa” and their templates is what we’re aiming the other cities to look like.

      Unfortunately, the civil war delayed all progress that has been made so far and we’re hoping in the next 5 years to be on track to make more changes. The biggest break for Cote d’Ivoire will come when big chocolate and other companies in general will start buying the raw ressources at a fair price.

      Everyone should have the right to have a decent life.

  10. Very interesting article
    Do you give talks and/or have a book to sign, as I book a local Berkeley Tennis Club Lecture Series.
    Ken Stutz

  11. David,

    I enjoyed the blog. I have two comments:

    (a) I have less faith on importance of large plantation to increase national wealth or to cause any form of equitable growth. Though they may entail economy of scale, in places where population is very high, the labor applied per unit of land is high when the land is allocated to many individuals (people really work hard in their own land, especially if the land is the only thing they have). Land plantation rely on hired workers and moral hazard issue will inevitably arise. Total productivity could go either way, but when more farmers own at least some land, equity issue is less severe.

    (b) This leads to the population question you mentioned. Poor people, as we know, have many kids because it is a form of insurance to them. Even if only one survives and strikes it big, the parents will have a good retirement life. Free primary education to kids and other bigger roles for states (such as guaranteed minimum allowance for poor) only encourages the tendency to have more kids as it makes affordable to have more kids. If people have to pay to send their kids to schools, and if they understands that there is a really increasing return to education upto high school level, they are less likely to have many kids and more likely to have pay attention to budget constraint they will face if they have many kids.


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