Interview: Pierre Billon

What potential for growth do palm oil and rubber plantations hold in Côte d’Ivoire?

PIERRE BILLON: Regional demand for palm oil-based products continues its upward trend, driven by several factors, such as rising income levels, consumer habits and demographic flows. The development of rubber also holds long-term potential and offers opportunities for increasing exports. There will a slowdown in the number of new plantations in Asia, and given geographic limitations for rubber, West Africa offers the most potential. Moreover, our region provides much better yields than Asia, reaching 2 tonnes per ha, against 1.7 tonnes per ha in Asia. The opposite is true with palm oil however; industrial plantations provide much stronger yields than small-scale farms. Yet we remain determined to cultivate both simultaneously.

Difficulties in acquiring land remain an obstacle for Côte d’Ivoire. The minister of agriculture and rural development, Mamadou Sangafowa Coulibaly, has said that he is engaging in several reforms which should improve the situation, such as a census of land, establishing the single window for rural titles and studying policies to improve the role of government in these matters. The Ivorian government must continue to ensure a propitious business environment to maintain a leading position as West Africa’s agricultural hub.

What efforts are being made to achieve more sustainable agriculture activities?

BILLON: The Global Agri-business Alliance (GAA), was launched in 2016 in Singapore, to pursue the ambitions set out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The agro-industrial sector has a direct impact on a large portion of the objectives underlined by this initiative and will require all stakeholders to cooperate in tackling major sustainability challenges facing the sector.

As for most crops in Africa, yields for small-scale farmers remain lacklustre. In palm oil, Côte d’Ivoire’s small-scale farms post an average yield of 5-6 tonnes per ha, while our industrial plantations reach upward of 15-20 tonnes per ha. Given this disparity, the GAA reached a consensus which put yield improvements at the forefront of the discussion on sustainability.

In Côte d’Ivoire, major operators are increasingly seeking to better structure farms, improve management of plantations and ensure best practices. We provide support on capital-intensive activities, such as the use of fertilisers, and facilitate access to training. Misappropriation of funds is a challenge to improving yields across the region, especially for long-cycle crops such as palm oil. So improving the management of the sector is crucial for its sustainable development.

What impact will the current sector reform have on the palm oil and rubber sectors?

BILLON: The sector is already administered by institutions comprising actors from across the value chain. We hope that the ongoing reform engendered by government will support the actions undertaken by the associations regrouping production chain actors.

What potential remains for local processing?

BILLON: Palm oil has undeniably the most potential for local processing. If we look at the ECOWAS market, demand for all major agri-food segments – including oil-based products, rice and wheat – maintain their upward trend. In addition, palm oil is the basis of a wide array of products that have experienced strong levels of growth in the region, such as personal care and cosmetics, and oleochemicals. Palm oil consumption in Côte d’Ivoire is 8 kg per capita, while in Europe this number reaches up to 14 kg per capita. With consumption growing, and it being a rare case where Côte d’Ivoire has secured the entire value chain, palm oil still offers strong potential for local processing. Nevertheless, current palm oil production falls short of our processing capacity, with 20% of our raw products being imported. Consequently, the spotlight on boosting local production remains.