The Ivory Coast miracle -- a boom amid West Africa's bust

WEST AFRICA's answer to the Crystal Palace sprang up in the Ivory Coast's posh capital last autumn. There, on the banks of Adibjan's lagoon, some 450 companies built a villiage of wooden pavilions. An empty lot became a bustling fair ground, crowned by a multi-colored ferris wheel. Expo 85, the Ivory Coast's largest industrial trade fair ever -- and the first for 15 years -- was a big success. It attracted huge crowds and raised hopes of economic recovery after several years of recession.

Expo 85 showed the wide variety of goods -- from air conditioners to army uniforms -- now made here. It also showed how much this country has developed industrially since it won its independence from France nearly 26 years ago.

For 20 years up to 1980 the country averaged a real annual growth rate of 8 percent. At independence, there was only a handful of firms; today there are some 700 employing 90,000 people and generating an annual turnover of over $300 billion (US). The kinds of goods displayed at the fair all had to be imported two decades ago. And one-third of all goods made here are now exported.

Industry Minister Bernard Ehui, speaking during a conference at the time of the fair, said that ``substantial recovery'' had been made in 1985, with real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing by 5 percent after falling almost 10 percent during the previous three years. The ministry forecast further growth in 1986.

The capital of Abidjan, meanwhile, has grown from a small town of 30,000 people at independence to a city of nearly 2 million people today. The growth, in Abidjan's case, symbolizes the country's remarkable development and contrasts sharply with the decline of most other West African countries. Several factors have made this growth possible:

Political stability. President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny has ruled the Ivory Coast firmly for the past 25 years. This has given the country a favorable environment for economic development. Last October, he was unanimously elected for a sixth five-year term of office.

Mr. Houphou"et-Boigny's policy of close cooperation with France and the West. This has been combined with liberal economic policies that encourage private enterprise and foreign capital. As a result the number of French expatriates more than tripled by the end of the 1970's.

When Esso discovered offshore oil here in 1974, American companies felt encouraged to penetrate what had hitherto been a French ``chasse gard'ee.'' Although an oil boom didn't materialize, there are now some 60 American firms installed in the Ivory Coast, including over a dozen in the oil sector. Several American banks and companies use Abidjan as a regional base.

Abidjan is arguably black Africa's most luxurious metropolis. Unlike Nigeria's chaotic capital, Lagos, this city is clean and orderly. It has elegant shops, good accomodations, and some of the best restaurants in black Africa. Electricity, supplied by the country's hydroelectric dams, is plentiful, and one can buy practically anything one wants -- at a price.

The city is massed on a central plateau and girdled by the lagoon; a six-lane highway runs around the plateau. American visitors say the capital's modern skyscrapers resemble Manhattan rather than an African city.

``Compared with the rest of West Africa it's paradise here,'' one American manager said.

Abidjan also has an excellent industrial infrastructure: roads, water supplies, a well-equipped port, good air and telecommunication links.

And there's a big pool of relatively well-educated labor. Ivorians occupy most of the administrative and managerial posts, while African immigrants do the manual work.

Significantly, this is one of the few African countries that have been able to build up their agricultural sectors. In the process, the Ivory Coast has made agro-industry its most important industrial sector.

The Ivory Coast has become the world's main cocoa producer, as well as the leading exporter of robusta coffee. It is also one of Africa's main palm oil, cotton, rubber, pineapple, and timber producers.

``What makes the Ivory Coast even more remarkable is that prosperity is based on agriculture, rather than oil or mineral resources,'' one economist pointed out. ``At independence it was a backwater, while Ghana, Guinea, and Senegal were far more developed.''

Now, in an effort to protect itself against unstable world cocoa prices and to increase its export earnings, the government aims to process 25 percent of the cocoa crop locally.

The country's four agricultural-related factories process sub-grade beans into cocoa liquor, butter, and cake, thus ensuring a greater utilization of the crop.

Three factories grind and roast coffee, but only one sells instant coffee locally and their combined capacity amounts to only 10 percent of last year's crop of 300,000 tons.

Meanwhile, the government wants to maximise earnings in its timber industry by processing more of its logs here. The industry turned just over 40 percent of its 4 million cubic meters of logs into cut lumber and other finished products in 1984.

The government has pinned its hopes for economic recovery on a new series of industrial reforms. The reforms are part of a World Bank structural adjustment program.

They are meant to make Ivorian industry more competitive and export-oriented. Effective tariff protection -- which in the past has run as high as 100 percent -- has been reduced to 40 percent, and quantitative restrictions have been introduced to allow firms time to adjust.

An export incentive scheme is due to begin soon. Most of the Ivory Coast's exports go to Western countries. But industry, in view of the small local market, must expand exports not only to Francophone neighbors -- to which the remaining 1 or 2 percent of its exports now go -- but also to Nigeria and Anglophone countries within the 16-member Economic Community of West Africa if it is to continue its rapid development, analysts say. The forces behind industrial revolution A good supply of natural resources. A system of agriculture flexible enough to feed a growing population of urban workers. Steady, but not huge, population growth. A market big enough to handle distribution of labor. The availability of capital for industry and infrastructure. An elastic social structure. Technologies that make available new methods of production and new sources of power.

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