July 18, 2022

A guide to the coffee sector in Côte d’Ivoire

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The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (also commonly known by its English name, the Ivory Coast) is a West African country with a population of more than 20 million people. The country shares its border with Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, and Burkina Faso. 

Coffee is the country’s second-largest commodity export, but production has steadily declined since the early 2000s. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Côte d’Ivoire was one of Africa’s largest producers of coffee, particularly of robusta – with annual export volumes often exceeding 300,000 tonnes.

So why have production levels dropped so significantly, and is there potential for the country to regain its position in the global coffee market? I spoke to two local coffee exports to find out. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article on coffee & conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A coffee farmer picks apart a coffee cherry

A brief history of coffee in Côte d’Ivoire

The French colonised Côte d’Ivoire in the late 19th century. Coffee was introduced not long after, and it’s believed this was the work of a French colonist by the name of Arthur Verdier.

However, it was another 30 years until coffee was grown on a commercial level. Up until this point, farmers cultivated small volumes of Coffea liberica: a rare coffee species which originated from neighbouring Liberia.

At some point in the early 20th century, robusta came to Côte d’Ivoire from Java and the Congo, which at that time was colonised by Belgium. In the years that followed, the country’s coffee industry boomed. Between 1945 and 1958, annual production increased from around 36,000 tonnes to some 112,500 tonnes.

After the country became independent from France in 1960, coffee production volumes rose even further. During the 1970s, Côte d’Ivoire was the third-largest coffee producing country in the world after Brazil and Colombia.

In 2000, robusta production peaked at 380,000 tonnes. Unfortunately, however, ongoing civil unrest which took place over the following decades had devastating effects on the country’s coffee sector. Between 2002 and 2011, two civil wars resulted in a significant fall in coffee production.

White coffee flowers growing on a branch

An overview of coffee production in Côte d’Ivoire today

Despite declining production volumes, Côte d’Ivoire is still one of the largest coffee producers in Africa. According to the USDA, it’s estimated that the country will export 800,000 60kg bags in 2022/23.

For the most part, the country only produces robusta, which is grown at altitudes between 300 and 400 m.a.s.l.

However, the country is also known for a hybrid of robusta and arabica – referred to as arabusta  – which is grown in mountainous areas around the city of Man. Arabusta was first cultivated in the 1960s after the country’s first President, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, wanted producers to grow a new coffee that tasted sweeter and milder than robusta. As a result of this, arabusta was marketed as the “Presidential Coffee”.

Currently, very few farmers grow arabusta, despite its more desirable characteristics. This is because the plant grows at a much slower rate than robusta; it takes around two years for arabusta to produce cherry. However, it’s important to also note that arabusta plants have a longer lifespan than robusta.

In Côte d’Ivoire, coffee is mostly grown in the regions of Abboisso, Abengourou, and Divo. Abboiso is one of the main coffee-growing areas, located approximately 100km northeast of the capital city Yamoussoukro.

The Abengourou region is around 100km northeast of Abboiso, but, sadly, many of the coffee farms here are neglected. Naturally, this means the coffee trees are old and produce small quantities of low-quality coffee.

Divo, meanwhile, is approximately 200km northeast of Abidjan, the country’s largest and most economically significant city. This region is home to the National Agricultural Research Centre (CNRA) facility. However, similarly to Abboiso, cocoa is the main cash crop for farmers in this region, followed by rubber and coffee.

Other regions that grow coffee in the country include Dimbokro, Bongouanou, Gagnoa, Man, Danané, Agboville, Daloa, San Pedro, Soubré, and Sassandra. However, across the country, coffee production volumes are low compared to other cash crops – namely cassava, palm oil, banana, pineapple, and coconut.

Hadi Beydoun is the founder and CEO of Café Continent, the first specialty coffee shop in Côte d’Ivoire. He provides some insight into these low levels of coffee production.

“There is a lack of information on coffee production in the country,” he says. “People know that there is a lot of cocoa grown, but don’t necessarily know about coffee.”

A pile of green coffee beans at various processing stages

Processing and trading

Coffee plants in Côte d’Ivoire flower continually throughout the year. Generally speaking, farmers harvest up to 250kg of cherry per hectare, and this is mostly carried out by hand between August and January.

Most coffee in the country undergoes natural processing. Unfortunately, some of the coffee produced in the country has a significant amount of defects, because of historically poor quality control during processing and other post-harvest issues.

“I think coffee quality has dropped over the past few years,” Hadi says. “This is partly because the government mainly focuses on cocoa production.

“There are a lot of defective beans,” he adds. “[As a specialty coffee shop], it can be difficult for us to find high-quality coffee.”

In addition to this, ongoing conflict in the country is also contributing to the overall low quality of coffee.

“Because of political instability and civil war, farmers want to harvest and [then quickly sell their coffee],” Hadi explains. “What’s more, producers would rather grow cocoa and [liquid sap for] rubber than coffee.”

As a result of these factors, Hadi adds that few coffee farmers are willing to invest in new harvesting or processing techniques because there is little financial incentive to do so.

Magdi Abdul Reda is the Production Manager at Café Continent. He tells me that most coffee producers in the country belong to co-operatives.

“Most of them are family businesses,” he says. “Most of them grow small amounts of coffee that [aren’t worth transporting] to bigger cities, which leaves them no choice but to join co-operatives.”

“The co-operatives sell the farmers’ coffee after harvest,” Hadi says. “Some buyers [will carry out more] basic post-harvest processing, as they have the machinery and equipment [to better prepare] beans for export.”

Grading also plays a big role in identifying the quality of the coffee produced in Côte d’Ivoire, which has its own grading system.

“Grade 0 is the highest, while grade 2 is the lowest quality,” Hadi says. “But even when we receive grade 0 coffee, we still have to sort it because there can be many stones and sticks in the beans.”

Once it’s ready for export, Ivorian coffee is shipped to a number of different countries, including the Netherlands, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada, and the UK. Coffee imported from Côte d’Ivoire is often added to blends rather than being sold as a single origin.

A woman walks past a roadside coffee stall in Côte d'Ivoire

Domestic consumption

There is no real heritage of coffee consumption in Côte d’Ivoire.

“People typically drink instant Nescafé coffee,” Hadi explains. “Besides that, there is no coffee culture in the country.”

Magdi tells me that in Côte d’Ivoire, coffee consumption is related to socioeconomic status. Most lower-income people will drink instant coffee or café noir: bitter-tasting brewed coffee which is often served from roadside kiosks. Among wealthier people in the country, coffee capsules are considered to be the highest-quality coffee that is generally available.

There is also little shared knowledge around brewing and roasting coffee, which Hadi says results in a limited number of ways to brew coffee. However, he explains that Café Continent is working to promote specialty coffee and provide more educational resources for consumers.

Coffee farmers in Côte d'Ivoire fill sacks with green coffee for export

Challenges and moving forward

Sadly, Côte d’Ivoire’s coffee industry faces many challenges. Ongoing conflicts have led to a distinct lack of funding and investment in development and infrastructure.

Hadi says there has been little investment in developing post-harvest infrastructure, which has a major impact on overall coffee quality.

“[There are few] quality control checks in the country,” he explains. “This is one of the many reasons why quality is so low.”

Magdi adds that illiteracy is one of the biggest challenges producers face.

“Most farmers do not know how to read and write,” he says. “Some of the cooperative leaders are literate, [which can result in unethical business practices as farmers can be taken advantage of]”.

However, there is certainly potential for coffee production to increase.

In 2014, Reuters reported that the government invested 8 billion CFA francs (US $15 million) to boost annual production volumes to 400,000 tonnes by 2020.

Unfortunately, these production goals were somewhat ambitious, and it will most likely take much longer to reach these volumes.

For now, improving access to education for coffee farmers, as well as investing in adequate infrastructure and new coffee plants, are the most pressing factors that could help to bolster coffee production.

Magdi and Hadi both emphasise that if the government and private sector stakeholders invest in coffee as much as the cocoa sector, the country’s coffee industry could see steady growth once again.

A coffee farmer harvests cherry in Côte d'Ivoire

Coffee production in Côte d’Ivoire is arguably a shadow of what it used to be. It’s clear that civil unrest has had a significant impact on coffee production, and many farmers have, in the years since, opted for other, more resilient cash crops.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Hadi concludes. “We are working hard to improve coffee quality.”

If more industry stakeholders can invest in the country’s coffee sector – as well as improving domestic consumption – then there may well be hope for coffee production in Côte d’Ivoire to increase in the years ahead.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on how the civil war is affecting the Ethiopian coffee industry.

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