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Ivory Coast Coffee: From Cocoa to Coffee and Back Again

The west African nation of Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, was once one of the world’s leading coffee producers, but is now better known for cocoa production. Whilst significant amounts of coffee continue to be produced and exported globally, the potential for a return to the coffee industry’s prime is currently overshadowed by factors such as the relative ease of growing other crops and limited investment in the industry.



Ivory Coast Coffee Growing History


Coffee was first introduced into Ivory Coast during the colonial period. Its introduction is often attributed to a French merchant and colonist named Arthur Verdier, however this information is false. French missionaries were, in fact, the first to introduce the plant in the early 1870s when they introduced Liberica coffee to Tabou, a region near the Liberian border. It was around a decade later that Verdier established the country’s first coffee plantation.


In the early 1900s, European planters introduced several other coffee varieties, including Robusta, and established agricultural research stations. But coffee cultivation was not widely adopted amongst farmers at this time, as they were sceptical about the idea of raising a crop for commercial purposes. To overcome such resistance, the colonial government began distributing seeds, establishing producer price incentives and using coercion.


Although cocoa was initially the preferred crop, the impact of the Great Depression upon France led the government to heavily promote coffee cultivation in its colonies in an attempt to reduce its dependence on Brazil for coffee. There was subsequently a huge rise in land under coffee cultivation, and exports of Ivory Coast coffee increased from 405 tons in 1929 to 17,960 tons in 1939. Low commodity prices, however, dissuaded many European plantations from continuing planting and cultivating, whilst lower costs for Ivorian farmers meant that they kept it up. Eventually, the number of trees planted by local farmers had exceeded that of the Europeans.


Following the Second World War, it became increasingly difficult for European plantations to remain profitable, as policies of forced labour and government subsidies to Europeans were abandoned. The final blow came in 1949 when coffee wilt disease wiped out thousands of acres of plantations. Europeans did not replant and coffee cultivation in Ivory Coast therefore became predominantly local.


Following independence in 1960, Ivory Coast underwent a period of significant economic growth. Coffee and cocoa were the spearheads of its export-led model and Ivory Coast coffee production continued to rise. Political leaders, including President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, owned plantations and therefore favoured high producer prices for export crops. Despite this growth, the Ivorian government borrowed and spent far beyond its means. A price stabilisation fund, initially created to limit Ivorian farmers’ exposure to boom-and-bust commodity cycles, was often borrowed from, and a downturn in commodity prices in the early 1980s sparked a major financial crisis for Ivory Coast. On Top of that, a major drought in 1984 also affected the coffee sector, although production did continue to remain high.


After the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, corruption, political repression and racial tension was rife amongst successive governments. Ongoing civil unrest resulted in two civil wars between 2002 and 2011, significantly impacting all sectors, including coffee production.


Ivory Coast is currently best known for being the largest cocoa producer in the world. The government therefore mainly focuses on this industry, and coffee production in Ivory Coast is often overlooked. Whilst there is the potential to strengthen the coffee sector, significant investments will need to be made in farmer education and training, new plants, access to inputs, and the development of industry infrastructure.



Ivory Coast Coffee Farming


There are an estimated 100,000-150,000 coffee farmers in Ivory Coast, all of whom can be classified as smallholder farmers. Around half of these farmers are members of cooperatives to which they sell their coffee.


Compared to other coffee origins, smallholder farm sizes in Ivory Coast are larger, with an average of 2.5 hectares per farm dedicated to coffee. Although coffee tends to be grown on monoculture plots, Ivorian farmers will usually also cultivate other crops as a source of food and a second source of income.



Ivory Coast Coffee Production Regions


Coffee production in Ivory Coast takes place in the south, with major hubs in both the southeast and southwest. The main growing regions are Aboisso, Abengourou, Divo and Man.


Aboisso is located around 100 km northeast of the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, with its coffee-producing area East of the main town. Abengourou is located around 200 km northeast of the capital, Abidjan, and Divo is located around 200 km northwest of the capital. Man, in the west, is the most mountainous area, and largest coffee-producing region in Ivory Coast. Coffee tends to be produced at an elevation of between 300 and 400 metres above sea level in the country, although elevations in Man are slightly higher at about 450 metres.


Sadly, across all regions, coffee production in Ivory Coast has been declining for various reasons. There is often little incentive to cultivate coffee when compared to the benefits associated with cultivating crops such as palm oil, rubber and cocoa. Other cash crops are usually less labour and capital intensive, yields are more consistent and economic returns are higher. As a result, many coffee farms are either neglected or have been replaced by alternative cash crops.



Ivory Coast Coffee Types and Varietals


The vast majority of coffee cultivated in Ivory Coast is Robusta, as the variety is better suited to the country’s lower elevations and higher temperatures. An Arabica-Robusta hybrid, known as Arabusta, is also associated with Ivory Coast. Arabusta was first developed and cultivated in the country in the 1960s following a request by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the nation’s first President post-independence. The goal was to develop a coffee that tasted sweeter and milder than Robusta but that was also suitable for cultivation across the country’s mostly flat terrain.


Arabusta cultivation, however, never really took off. Despite their overall longer lifespan, Arabusta plants take longer to grow and produce lower yields. By 2018, Cote d’Ivoire’s National Centre for Agronomic Research had all but abandoned the land set aside for the varietal, and just a handful of small-scale coffee producers in the western region continue cultivation, with production believed to have plummeted to just two tons in 2018.



Ivory Coast Coffee Flavour Profile


Due to the predominance of the Robusta varietal, Ivorian coffee is often regarded as high in acidity and bitterness, with coarse and woody aftertastes. Arabusta offers a sweeter flavour profile, but is not widely available.



Ivory Coast Coffee Harvest Date


Coffee plants flower several times throughout the year in Ivory Coast, with the main harvest season taking place between August and January. Harvesting is mostly carried out by hand and beans go through natural processing.



Ivory Coast Coffee Annual Production


During the 1970s and 1980s, Ivory Coast was the world’s third largest coffee producer after Colombia and Brazil. Production in the country peaked at 380,000 tons in 2000.


Since then, production has fallen significantly, partly due to the consequences of conflict and civil war. However, other issues include ageing trees and limited investment in developing farmer knowledge, access to inputs and a lacking industry infrastructure. Additionally, there is little incentive to cultivate coffee in the Ivory Coast when compared to the benefits associated with cultivating crops such as palm oil, rubber and cocoa. Other cash crops are usually less labour and capital intensive, yields are more consistent and economic returns are higher. As a result, many coffee trees and farms are either neglected or have been replaced by alternative cash crops.


Despite decreased production, Ivory Coast remains one of Africa’s largest coffee producers, after Ethiopia and Uganda. It is also the fifteenth largest producer globally. According to the International Coffee Organisation, coffee production in Ivory Coast has averaged around two million bags, or around 120,000 tons, in the past few years. Between 2020 and 2021, around 1.8 million bags, or just over 100,000 tons, were produced.


In 2014, the Ivorian government launched a new development plan with the aim of quadrupling coffee production to around 400,000 tons a year. Given that just over 100,000 tons were produced in the year 2020/2021, this target was highly ambitious and evidently much more needs to be done to boost production.



Ivory Coast Coffee Annual Export Volume


According to the International Coffee Organisation, Ivory Coast exported just over 1.35 million bags, or around 81000 tons, of coffee in the 2020/2021 season. In 2021/2022, just over 783,000 bags, or about 47000 tons, were exported. Exports of coffee from Ivory Coast are destined for countries such as the Netherlands, Algeria, France and Italy, amongst others.


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