ABIDJAN - For many years, Ivory Coast has been the world's largest producer of cocoa. Most of it leaves the country in bulk and ends up in Europe, where it gets turned into fine and expensive chocolate, fetching up to 50 times the price of the raw cocoa.
Chocolate is the world's favorite comfort food. Two-thirds of all that sweet stuff comes out of factories in the United States and Western Europe. It is where most people consume it, too. Almost completely left out of this feast for the palate are the countries that produce the raw material for chocolate: cocoa.
A few years ago, a Dutch-Ivorian television crew went to one of Ivory Coast's many cocoa farms and recorded the surprise on the planters' faces when tasting chocolate for the first time: so THIS is what they do with our cocoa beans?
Very little chocolate is consumed in Africa, but this Ivorian entrepreneur is planning to change that.
Axel Emmanuel Gbaou says he worked at a commercial bank until 2010 before he decided to go into the business of making chocolate. The taste for the sweet bars came from his mother, who had been living among Swiss missionaries, great chocolate lovers. His conviction came from doing some basic arithmetic.
Eighty percent of next year's cocoa beans, he explains, have already been bought up by the big multinational companies that transport them raw to the chocolate factories in other parts of the world. One kilo of chocolate fetches up to 50 times more than one kilo of unprocessed cocoa beans. Axel wants some of that money to stay in Ivory Coast.
In this nondescript building close to the market in Abidjan's Cocody district, you will find the production unit, the packaging center and sales office. Axel's company sells its products to an ever expanding circle of customers, including the global airline Air France.
Back in the cocoa producing fields, the situation is dire. World market prices have been falling for two years. In response, the government of Ivory Coast has lowered the standard price per kilo.
Agronomist N'dourou M'beo is quality control manager at Axel's company. He says current cocoa prices stand at around $1.40 per kilo. That is the raw harvest that gets shipped out of the country. But after some basic treatment - roasting and winnowing - those beans fetch three times as much and they can be stored for months. This is one model the company has adopted. As a result, more work and money stay on the farm and the company has a reliable supply of quality beans.
The world is the market, but Axel's biggest challenge lies right here in Africa.
In the next two years, he says he wants to sell 100 million bars of chocolate on the African continent.
That sounds like a lot, but in fact with well more than one billion inhabitants and a fast growing middle class that can afford buying a few bars at $3 each, he thinks it is perfectly doable.