Trade Forum Features

West Africa’s resurgent economic performer

23 December 2014
ITC News

Côte d’Ivoire has for centuries been known as a country blessed with abundant natural resources. Today this is reflected in the West African country’s status as the world’s largest exporter of cocoa. That position should not be underestimated. A coup in 1999, followed by a bloody presidential election and subsequent rebellion, led to the demise of Côte d’Ivoire as West Africa’s economic powerhouse. Investors, foreign companies and international organizations fled the country, adding to the undoing of decades of development. A decade of political stability, however, has helped Côte d’Ivoire regain some of its lost momentum. Its economy remains fragile, though, and events such as the spread of Ebola could quickly turn the progress made into further economic misery.

The return of the African Development Bank to Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, after a 10-year exile is a positive sign. So too is the fact that international companies are returning their West African operations back to the country while others are investing there for the first time, attracted by opportunities in a variety of sectors including agriculture and mining.

It was to add further impetus to Côte d’Ivoire’s booming economy that the country’s National Export Strategy (NES) was unveiled in November. Developed by the Ministry of Commerce, Crafts and SMEs with support of the International Trade Centre, the NES aims to steer Côte d’Ivoire towards a more diversified, sustainable and inclusive future. The strategy identifies sectors other than cocoa and coffee which have great export potential, including textiles and clothing, rubber and plastic, tropical fruit, and information technology services. It then systematically identifies interventions to facilitate trade and export success. ‘The strategy will help reposition Ivorian exports in international markets and will also reinforce their competitiveness. In addition, the strategy will boost the competitiveness of the private sector and will contribute to attracting Aid for Trade and investments into export sectors,’ said Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan.

The NES also makes a point of singling out small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, a better business environment has to be put in place and its objectives reached for SMEs to be able to play a greater role in the Ivorian economy.

‘Only successful implementation of the [strategy’s] strategic plan of action will realize the promise of new markets, new products with greater added value, and new jobs in export sectors,’ said ITC Executive Director Arancha González. As in most countries, SMEs hold the solution the Ivorian unemployment challenge. They can provide better conditions for business and can help bring decent work to the poor, especially women and young people. Hamed Coulibaly, commercial manager of Rama Céréal, a cereal producer, is among those welcoming a stronger Ivorian focus on exports.

Established in 2005, Rama Céréal has grown from a five-person operation to 25 employees today, of which a majority are women. Having managed to penetrate the Ivorian markets, the company has tentatively begun exporting to neighbouring countries, thanks to relative political stability, with the bulk going to Benin. The company must invest in new equipment to expand beyond its current operational base but access to finance is an obstacle in that regard, Coulibaly said. Still, he hopes Rama Céréal’s products will soon be found abroad as well as Africa. ‘We are looking for partners in Europe,’ he said. ‘Achieving this would potentially allow the company to double its output.’

Increasing exports is also Michèle Yakice’s goal. She is the director and founder of a foundation and a school that bears her name that trains young people – mostly women – in fashion-related skills ranging from clothing design to hairdressing. Her students are not only from Côte d’Ivoire, but from across West Africa. Her organization is a beneficiary of the European Union-funded Trade Support and Regional Integration Programme for the Côte d’Ivoire (PACIR, after its French-language acronym), of which ITC is an implementing partner. Employing more than 50 people who double as teachers and skilled workers, participation in the PACIR programme for two years has helped Yakice reorganize the company’s business and production models. ‘It has been a long process,’ Yakice said. ‘We are still in the restructuring process, but it is thanks to PACIR that we were able to open the shop two months ago.’ Yakice also shares Coulibaly’s concern about ready access to finance. ‘Not so much because we are women, but because we don’t have the necessary liquidity to ask for funding to order the quantities we need,’ she said. ‘It is more a problem of trust between the banks and SMEs.’ Like most businesses, Yakice’s enterprise has been suffering from regional political instability and the global financial crisis. ‘We are exporting, but in small quantities,’ she said. ‘Our biggest market is Angola, but this has diminished as result of the crises. Now business is starting to pick up again and we looking for other markets.’

Steps large and small are already being taken to return Côte d’Ivoire to its former level of economic prowess – and beyond. Though the National Export Strategy is another step in the right direction, achieving its desired ends will require a major effort. Business owners such as Coulibaly and Yakice are among the many leading the charge.