West Africa Rising: Ivory Coast to begin exporting cocoa again soon

After a brief civil war that killed hundreds, Ivory Coast – the world's No. 1 producer of cocoa – will begin exporting the crop again. But has the country lost its edge to neighboring Ghana?

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

A cause for celebration in Ivory Coast: This war-battered country, the world's top exporter of cocoa, will begin exporting its famous cash crop in a matter of days, bringing a much-needed rush of cash into this country of empty shops and looted homes.

Happily, there's quite a lot to export: Four months of civil war hardly damaged the half ton of still-fresh Ivoirian cocoa that the country's warehouses stored when ships refused to dock here.

Yet the celebration may be brief. The decade of conflict that proceeded Ivory Coast's latest round of civil war has ruined its cocoa industry. Old trees are dying. Fertilizer is missing. Thousands of farmers have fled, and their farms have gone fallow.

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Within a matter of years, economists say, the unthinkable could happen: The world's biggest grower of cocoa could be overtaken by neighboring Ghana.

"It's a real potential," says Kona Haque, an analyst Macquerie Group Ltd. in London. "It's going to take a while before the Ivory Coast sees a big upward swing in production."

Cocoa funded four decades of stable governance and incredible architecture in Ivory Coast, a former French colony unique in a region renowned for military rule.

The boon will resume, this year, with what meteorologists say will be a fantastic crop, thanks to La Nina rains.

"The [next] crop is looking good as well," Ms. Haque adds. "But looking to the future, I don't think you can expect that a new government will automatically turn things around."

The country's farmers have invested little into their farms since the outbreak of war in 2002, she says.

That's because they've had little to invest, says economist Yvonne Mhango with Renaissance Capital in Greenwich, Conn.

The country's soldiers have extorted enormous cuts from the cocoa trade by stopping truck drivers at rural checkpoints, she says.

Those same truckloads have been over-taxed at the port, and traded by too many middle men on the way to chocolate stores and candy machines, reducing the farmer's take on Ivoirian cocoa to a pittance.

"Farmers are not getting a lot of the final consumer price," Haque agrees, and they certainly aren't using what little they get, she adds, to purchase new trees or new equipment.

"Basically, the farmers have had very little incentive to re-invest in their cocoa plantations," she says. "What we've been seeing these last five years or so is generally plateauing production. The trees are very old."

It will take three to five years for even the most recently planted trees to bear their first pod.

In the meantime, neighboring Ghana has put forward a plan to produce a million tons of cocoa – a wealth of beans that would make this once impoverished nation the world's top cocoa maker.

"They are vying for the million-ton-spot by 2012, which I think is a little bit ambitious," Haque says. "But there's no reason it can't happen in the next three to four years."

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