Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On life and cocoa in the Ivory Coast

By David Zilberman

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.