In the current lull after what has been the most tumultuous decade in Côte d’Ivoire’s near 50-year history, a country that has long been synonymous with the production of a single savoury additive – cocoa – is seeking to diversify its export sector.

With a peace agreement reached between the government of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) rebels in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou in March of this year – and New Forces leader Guillaume Soro now sitting in the prime minister’s office in Abidjan – opportunities are present for Ivorian exports to branch out in a way that was not present at any point in the past seven years.

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Export mainstay

Cocoa certainly remains the dominant force in the economy of Côte d’Ivoire, and the country is still the world’s largest producer of cocoa, despite the country being split in half between government and rebel-controlled zones following the 2002-03 civil war.

The Ivorian crop currently accounts for nearly 40% of the world’s cocoa production, and represents an average 35% of the total value of the country’s yearly exports. An estimated three to four million of Côte d’Ivoire’s 16 million inhabitants work in some aspect of the cocoa trade.

While in the country’s southern zone, controlled by the Gbagbo government, yearly cocoa exports are estimated by the Ivorian treasury to run at about $1.4bn, in the northern sector, controlled by the New Forces rebels, estimated annual cocoa revenues are thought to hover around the $30m mark.

Despite the tumult, lead exporters say the sector has endured.

“The only real impact of the war on the crop is smuggling, through Ghana, Togo and Liberia,” says an executive with the Abidjan offices of the US multinational Cargill, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “In terms of volume, though, the crop is going up to where it should be.”

Oil prospects

These days, however, powerful as it is, the cocoa sector is not the only game in town. In addition to long-standing coffee and palm oil exports, black gold dwelling off the country’s shores has also begun to play a more prominent role.

“The cocoa crop was good this year, and we expect a good performance there,” Guy M’Bengue, managing director of the Association pour la Promotion des Exportations de Côte d’Ivoire (APEX-CI), told fDi. “But in the oil sector, we know that there’s big potential, and we expect that the government will take it seriously because it will be another pillar of our economy.”

One need only to look at other west African countries such as Nigeria and Angola to see the potentially transformative effect the oil sector could have on the economy.

Oil boost

Oil exports will play a major role in boosting the country’s total exports throughout the 2006-2010 period to about 10% over trend levels, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Recently, two Texas-based energy infrastructure companies, Energy Allied International and WCW International, inked a deal with the Société Nationale d’Operations Pétrolières de la Côte d’Ivoire (Petroci), the state oil company, to open and operate a 60,000 barrel-per-day crude oil refining facility in tandem with a strategic refined products storage location in the economic capital of Abidjan at a cost of a $1.4bn.

At 250 acres, the refinery is set to become one of the largest upgrading facilities in Africa and will process petrol, jet fuel, diesel oil and butane slated for sale across west Africa.

In another sign of the country’s hoped-for resurgence, officials announced late in 2007 that they intended to spend more than $230m on expanding Abidjan’s state-controlled port, west Africa’s largest. The ambitious project seeks to develop the currently fallow Ile Boulay in the city’s iconic Ebrie Lagoon with a slew of new roads, warehouses and landing quays for ships.

About 75% of imports to continental Sahelian countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger likewise move through Abidjan’s port facilities.

The first priority in reinforcing Côte d’Ivoire’s export environment is likely to be improving the security environment, dismantling trade barriers between the northern and southern portions of the country, regularising the customs and tax system, and increasing transparency and accountability among both the country’s indigenous institutions and foreign companies doing business there. A tall order indeed, but by no means insurmountable.