WITH DOMESTIC VALUE ADDITION, CÔTE D’IVOIRE IS FINALLY CASHING IN ON ITS CASHEWS
In the city of Bondoukou, located in the Zanzan District of north-eastern Côte d’Ivoire, only a short distance from the country’s border with Ghana, traditional straw-roofed huts have given way to houses made from cement and covered with metal sheets. Motorbike sales have exploded in the city, while local farmers connect to the internet and exchange messages with their smartphones.
“Living conditions have improved significantly. The cashew nut has changed people’s lives. It’s thanks to income from cashews that family farmers can pay for healthcare and daily expenses, send their younger children to primary school and their older children to high school,” says Fonibé Sekongo, who for over 15 years has been the director of the cooperative Copabo, comprised of nearly 900 small cashew nut producers in the Bondoukou region.
Over the last 20 years, this son of former cotton growers has seen the region transformed by cashew cultivation, with producers’ income doubling, even tripling.
Members of Copabo cultivate small parcels between 0.5 and 5 hectares with an average annual yield of 400 kilos of raw nuts per hectare. Collected by the cooperative, the nuts brought in 305 CFA francs per kilo (€0.47 per kilo) at the beginning of this year’s harvest. This means an average annual income of €940 for five hectares. “The price has dropped some this year due to lower quality. Average prices vary between 300 and 400 CFA francs per kilo. The Ivorian government tries to regulate the price each year by setting a purchase price for growers, which depends on the quality and the world market price,” explains Sekongo.
Just over half of the raw nuts harvested by the cooperative are sold to Singaporean agribusiness giant Olam for processing and export to India, as well as to the Canadian company Ivoirienne de Noix de Cajou (INCajou). Copabo also processes 400 tonnes, which were certified as organic this year. The cashew nuts produced in Côte d’Ivoire remain virtually pesticide- and fertiliser-free. “These nuts are shelled on site, mainly by hand. The kernels are then bagged and shipped to the European, Swiss and American markets,” says Sekongo with pride, as this is not the case for the vast majority of nuts produced in Africa.
While Africa, led by Côte d’Ivoire, currently produces 90 per cent of the world’s raw cashew nuts, less than 15 per cent are processed on the continent. In Côte d’Ivoire, the number is only 6 per cent. The majority of production is exported to Asia, where processing plants run at full capacity, roasting, salting and incorporating the nuts into snacks destined for the European and American markets. Relocating cashew nut processing to African countries would mean an important new source of income for the continent.
Economic, social and environmental benefits
Cashew trees were initially introduced to the Bondoukou region for reforestation purposes. The local population soon realised that cashew cultivation was much less demanding than cocoa cultivation, that agricultural plots required little maintenance and that the nuts could be sold at a more attractive price than cocoa or cotton, whose prices were falling.
Within two decades, the cashew nut became Côte d’Ivoire’s new star crop and its success continues. Production has increased tenfold to reach 848,700 tonnes in the 2020 season, according to the most recent figures from the Cotton and Cashew Council. The sector now provides a living for more than 410,000 families in Côte d’Ivoire, now the world’s second largest producer behind India and ahead of Vietnam. It is also on its way to becoming the third largest cashew processor in the world, with some of the highest output.
According to François Ruf, a researcher at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), based in Côte d’Ivoire, cashew nut production came about in part due to ecological transition to adapt to climate change and forest depletion.
“Climate change has made it difficult to plant cocoa trees in the north. Farmers rediscovered the cashew tree, which is hardy, drought-resistant and, for the time being, requires no chemical inputs, as there are no particular insects or diseases that require it, unlike what we have seen with cotton or cocoa,” explains Ruf.
Cashew trees have also helped to restore forest cover in savannah areas with high pressure on wood resources for cooking and heating.
“The initial development of cashew cultivation was totally spontaneous and free, driven by supply and demand alone. India was short on raw materials, and buyers came to Africa in the 1980s and started buying nuts. There was initially no support from the Ivorian government or from NGOs. That support came later, when the trees were planted. And the cashew industry has enabled producers in the north, whose only cash crop was cotton, to diversify their production, which has had a major social impact,” says Pierre Ricau, an agricultural economist at Nitidae, an association that supports agricultural development and environmental conservation in Africa.
Providing support for the industry
The Ivorian government now sets the price paid to producers and since 2016 has taxed exports of raw nuts in order to encourage local processing. For the time being, most of the value added from cashew nuts harvested in Côte d’Ivoire and Africa is created in India and Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in Brazil, during initial processing (drying, shelling, removal of the skin from the kernel, etc.), then in Europe and North America, where 60 per cent of the marketed nuts are roasted, salted, packaged and consumed as cereal bars or incorporated into drinks.
According to the report Commodities at a Glance, Special Issue on Cashew Nuts by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), published in April 2021, the 2018 export price of cashew nuts from India to the European Union was roughly 3.5 times greater than that paid to Ivorian producers. As the report goes on to conclude, after a second stage of processing in Europe, the price of cashew nuts was then 2.5 times higher than when they were exported from India, or about 8.5 times higher than when they left the farm in Côte d’Ivoire.
These figures show the potential for increased income and reduced poverty for Africa’s three million small cashew producers. According to UNCTAD, the problem lies in the lack of local processing industries. Cashew nuts grow in the tropical climates of 20 countries in West and East Africa, which produce most of the raw cashew nuts sold on the world market. Along with Côte d’Ivoire, the main African producers are Tanzania, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Ghana. And Senegal is one of many countries showing interest.
“The cashew nut sector in Senegal has great potential, which could be developed through the creation of geographical indications, eco-labels and certifications, both for European markets as well as for African countries that are members of the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a market of 1.3 billion consumers,” says El Hadji Abdourahmane Ndione, director-general of the Senegalese Standards Association (ASN).
Increasingly informed and engaged consumers want to be reassured both about the practice of shelling, which is corrosive when done manually [because the shell of the kernel contains an acidic resin, editor’s note], as well as respect for workers’ rights and the environment, in order to avoid the abuses observed in other sectors such as cocoa and palm oil.
In order to take full advantage of the cashew boom, Côte d’Ivoire has set out to achieve a domestic processing rate of 40 per cent. In recent years, investments have been pouring in and processing centres have sprung up in Bondoukou, Korhogo, Bouaké, Yamoussoukro and Abidjan.
These investors include Singapore’s Olam (the market leader), China’s SG Agro, Canada’s Ivoirienne de Noix de Cajou (INCajou), France’s Ciwa, Israel’s DekelOil, and Côte d’Ivoire’s Novarea and Ivory Cashew Nut (ICN).
“There are currently about fifteen processing plants under construction, which will be added to the roughly 15 existing ones. Five years ago there were only three plants! One of them has since closed […]. In 2016, Côte d’Ivoire processed around 10,000 tonnes of raw cashew nuts; it is now approaching 100,000 tonnes of processed nuts. This is a major development that has resulted in 6,000 new jobs,” says Pierre Ricau of Nitidae.
Côte d’Ivoire is currently the only country to initiate a policy of support for the cashew industry, setting prices for producers, taxing raw exports and facilitating factory building. “Other countries like Burkina Faso, Benin and Ghana are looking at what is happening and beginning to follow suit,” adds Ricau.
In Bondoukou, Fonibé Sekongo, dreams of seeing one of his five children take over the management of the cashew plantation and a livestock farm that he is setting up. “Development has caught up with us. Everything here is modern now, we’re like any big city. Young people here can find their place in agriculture, especially now that they are better equipped than their parents to understand and develop techniques.”
“As long as prices remain stable,” he adds.