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Côte d'Ivoire, gateway to the regional chocolate market

08 March 2014

An interview with Patrick Poirrier, CEO of Cémoi

Forty-three-year-old Patrick Poirrier is the third generation  at the helm of the Perpignan-based French chocolate firm Cémoi (annual turnover €780 million). He set up and ran the firm's Côte d'Ivoire subsidiary before taking charge of the group in France. 

The French chocolate group Cémoi is setting up a chocolate factory in Côte d'Ivoire, targeting first the domestic and then the regional market, minimising its imports of raw materials and developing products affordable to local consumers. CEO Patrick Poirrier claims that the group is not too worried about the Economic Partnership Agreements, since the group will eventually be involved in imports, local production and exports.

Q: International demand for premium cocoa products and chocolate is growing. How is this reflected in your planned chocolate factory in Côte d'Ivoire and the launch of the Akwaba range of products?

Cémoi has been working in Côte d'Ivoire since 1996, promoting sustainable cocoa farming and handling the initial processing of the beans. We now have 17 fermentation centres working with the cooperatives to ensure their cocoa beans are properly fermented and dried as part of our win–win quality assurance policy. At present, Côte d'Ivoire is known for producing the bulk cocoa used in all chocolate, but Cémoi wants to develop a premium product, spotlighting Côte d'Ivoire as its country of origin. European consumers require a higher quality from Côte d'Ivoire's cocoa beans.

Q: Why now?

We have spent many years working with the cooperatives to develop sustainable cocoa farming. This is a key issue, since global demand for cocoa beans is growing year on year and production needs to respond. So our sustainable development programme is also targeting improvements in productivity. While average yields in Côte d'Ivoire stand at 330 to 400kg/ha, our test plots are currently achieving one tonne/hectare. Improving yields can help growers increase their profitability. 

Q: Rather than target the export market, you're concentrating at the moment on finished products for Ivorian consumers. Why?

One of the current growth markets is Indonesia, where some producers are manufacturing chocolate products tailored to local consumer behaviour, climate and purchasing power. At Cémoi, we thought it very sad that the people of the world's leading cocoa-bean producer, Côte d'Ivoire, and of West Africa in general, didn't have access to good quality chocolate products.

We began our project by importing and test-marketing products capable of withstanding the heat, like chocolate spread and chocolate powder. Heat is one of the main impediments to chocolate consumption in Côte d'Ivoire since, outside Abidjan, the country has very little by way of a temperature-controlled distribution chain, i.e. chill cabinets in retail stores. Then we imported miniature 40g chocolate bars, putting chocolate made with 100 % cocoa butter within reach of a bigger proportion of the population.

Q: So you're importing French products for market testing in Côte d'Ivoire?

Precisely. We wanted to test premium products on this market to show you don't have to sacrifice quality just because you're operating in a market where purchasing power is lower than in Europe.

We're now embarking on the second phase of the project, which will see the investment of more than FCFA 4 billion in a chocolate production plant at our site in Yopougon. We believe you have to go looking for expanding markets in situ, and West Africa is currently experiencing 7 to 8 % growth in GDP.

We are planning to make Côte d'Ivoire a real bridgehead from which we can grow our market throughout West Africa. The population is rising very fast and chocolate is a product with universal appeal. Some countries have a tea or coffee drinking culture; but there's no country in the world where people will tell you they don't like chocolate. We always take chocolate with us when we visit the growers in Côte d'Ivoire so they can taste the fruits of their labours.

Q: What is the current value of the West African chocolate market? 

There are no exact figures. Our test marketing lasted a year and involved several hundred tonnes of chocolate products. But we still haven't explored all the distribution networks. Comparison with other types of product shows quite clearly that the market is growing, if only due to the significant increase in population; plus returns are very good in relation to the quality of our product offer. We have therefore decided to build up gradually from the baseline products imported for our pilot.

Q: Given the prospect of a very open market following the possible signing of an EPA between the EU and ECOWAS, are you concerned at all about competition from imported chocolate?

We are already involved on the import side – if you look at the lines stocked by the shops in Abidjan, you'll find plenty of Cémoi products. We occupy two entirely complementary positions: on the one hand, we offer a wide variety of imported products accessible only to the small proportion of the population able to afford them under any circumstances; and on the other, we are seeking a mass market by offering smaller product sizes tailored to local purchasing power.

Q: Will you be using imports to manufacture finished products in Côte d'Ivoire? 

We want to try and source our ingredients as locally as possible, particularly Ivorian sugar, which will enable us to add value to this sector. Côte d'Ivoire has two sugar producers, so this is an area of interest to us. We also intend to work on producing our packaging locally.

Q: But if you do have to increase your level of imports, whether from neighbouring countries, Europe or elsewhere, how simple would it be in present-day Côte d'Ivoire?

At the moment we still have to import a lot of our packaging, particularly printed plastic. But the growth of local consumption will foster change. We're not the only ones who need this kind of packaging. For example, meat stock and soups are now sold in powder form, which also requires plastic packaging. We’ll also try to attain a critical mass to encourage a supplier to come and set up locally.

This is a straightforward example of an economy making progress towards increased local production as it adapts to a growing local market.

Q: How are your plans progressing to export chocolate from Côte d'Ivoire to 16 other African countries?

This is our long-term aim and will help to determine the size of our production line. But over the next couple of years we are going to concentrate on Côte d'Ivoire, which is our real bridgehead.

Q: Are you just planning to expand into ECOWAS countries or are you looking at Central Africa as well?

We are focusing more on ECOWAS because it's a clearly defined economic zone, with preferential internal customs duties. But we remain open-minded because this whole zone is extremely dynamic.

Q: Regulations, red tape, very varied consumer tastes... Won't these make the whole operation rather complicated?

ECOWAS give us a solid commercial and economic entity to start with. This free trade zone is a preference zone regarding the movement of goods and people, but duties still exist between member states, and economic development can help free it up still further. But we are of necessity pioneers – first we have to penetrate the domestic market in Côte d'Ivoire, and then that of the sub-region before we go searching for other markets.


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