Business

The chocolate shops championing Ivory Coast's cocoa

Dana Mroueh, Mon Choco
Image caption Dana Mroueh: one of Ivory Coast's latest chocolatiers

Dana Mroueh is not thinking about fitness as she furiously pedals away on her exercise bike - her only thoughts are of chocolate.

Not just any chocolate; a special kind of raw chocolate that she makes herself by crushing cocoa beans in a grinder attached to her bicycle wheel.

"The day I discovered raw chocolate I totally forgot about milk chocolate," she says, handing me a freshly made bar, elegantly wrapped in the beige and gold wrapping of her Mon Choco label.

The 27-year-old is the latest entrepreneur in Ivory Coast to become a chocolatier using Ivorian cocoa beans. While the West African nation is the world's leading cocoa exporter, it is virtually impossible to find chocolate made in Ivory Coast from Ivorian cocoa.

However, that is beginning to change, albeit on a small scale. There are more and more boutique cafes and chocolatiers selling and making handmade, artisanal Ivorian chocolate.

Image caption Mroueh generates energy on her exercise bike to crush the cocoa beans

"Here it's really bean to bar," says Mroueh. "We want to be local. We want to show to the world that Ivory Coast is rich." She buys the cocoa beans straight from the farmer and then dries them on the roof of her factory in Abidjan, or in her newly purchased tumble dryer.

"And then this is where the magic happens," she says as she leads me into the grinding room and places the crushed beans into a large metal machine along with brown sugar, also from Ivory Coast.

Image caption The crushed cocoa beans before they are put in the grinder

After two or three days of continuous grinding, a sleek, deep brown paste is formed, which is then chilled in moulds. Unlike normal chocolate, there is no cooking involved resulting in a much richer, almost fruity taste.

"My love of chocolate is a family thing," she says, stemming all the way from her grandfather who was born in Ivory Coast and worked in the cocoa industry.

Home of cocoa

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that Ivory Coast began to establish itself as the powerhouse of cocoa. It now produces 40% of the world's cocoa, and cocoa makes up 15% of the country's GDP and 40% of its exports.

However, most of the cocoa is exported raw, meaning very little value added revenue for the economy.

"We are not keeping for the population the bulk of the added value that could be taken from agriculture," says economist Kady Fadika Coulibaly, the chief executive of Hudson and CIE, the leading brokerage firm on the BRVM, the West Africa stock exchange.

"We need to transform [the cocoa]… to be able to have more employment for the people who are working now on the plantations [so] they can also be working in the factories."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ivory Coast now has its first chocolate factory, in Abidjan
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The country has a target of processing half of all its cocoa at home by 2020
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The inauguration of the CEMOI factory took place in May 2015

Last year, French chocolate manufacturer CEMOI opened Ivory Coast's only chocolate factory, producing chocolate spreads and cocoa powder. This year Ivory Coast is set to overtake the Netherlands as the leading bean grinding hub.

And President Alassane Ouattara has a big vision: to have 50% of Ivory Coast's yearly crop of nearly two million tonnes of cocoa processed in the country by 2020, up from 30% now.

While Coulibaly says this is possible, she says the government needs "to increase the financing to the industry and not only wait until we have foreign direct investment".

Rising to the challenge

On the other side of Abidjan, in Cocody, another chocolatier swiftly shuts his front door as the brutal tropical rains start hammering on the windows.

Image caption Former banker Axel Emmanuel is now an award-winning chocolate entrepreneur

Axel Emmanuel used to be a banker but ditched the financial sector for chocolate and launched Instant Chocolat. "I wanted to make chocolate from Ivorian cocoa because it's a challenge. We did not have national chocolatiers so I rose to the challenge," he says.

The small room downstairs serves as an office, a packaging centre and a showroom. At the top of the stairs, through plastic sheeting that acts as a door, two women are busy wrapping pralines in gold and silver foil under the ice-cold breeze of an air conditioning unit.

Image caption Instant Chocolat's products target the middle class

The poky headquarters mask the entrepreneur's success. The 32-year-old has already been crowned Chocolatier of Ivory Coast, Vice-Chocolatier of Africa, and last year President Ouattara named him Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

He sold his first bar of chocolate in 2015 and now transforms two tonnes of Ivorian cocoa beans annually. His main clients are large companies including Air France, Standard Chartered Bank, Citibank and even CEMOI itself.

He says he wants to show other entrepreneurs that chocolate can be turned into a viable business, and is setting up a project to train people to become chocolatiers "because we earn more after transforming the chocolate, that's indisputable".

Chocolate-making dreams

Like Mroueh, his market is the middle class. Both sell their chocolate bars for about $5 (£3.50).

Ivory Coast has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, recording 10.3% growth last year, and with that, a population that has an increasingly stronger earning power. "Now is the good moment in Africa because there's an emerging middle class," says Emmanuel.

Image caption Assiatou Fanny (second from left) brought her family to Festiglaces

A big chunk of that middle class can be found queuing around the affluent streets of Riviera Golf over the May bank holiday weekend to get into Festiglaces, Ivory Coast's ice cream, cake and chocolate festival.

It's a dream for children: chocolate-making workshops in one marquee, crepes and face painting in another.

"I'm here for my children," says festival-goer Assiatou Fanny. "It's a great thing for them. It allows them to get to know that cocoa is the basis of chocolate because we're the premier producers."

This year's theme is "Le bon chocolat de Cote d'Ivoire" - "Ivory Coast's good chocolate" - a clear sign that it's not just the boutiques and cafes who are keen to promote the" Made in Ivory Coast" theme.

Image caption Eleven-year-old Anita enjoyed the festival

"I've eaten lots of ice cream, lots of cakes and lots of chocolate also," says Fanny's 11-year-old daughter Anita, with a smile. "I've even eaten chocolate that was made here," she adds delightedly, clearly something she doesn't get to do very often.

Unaffordable luxury

And this is one of the problems - the accessibility of chocolate. For most people in Ivory Coast, it is a luxury they just can't afford.

The average consumption here is less than 500g a year. Compare that to countries like Germany or Switzerland, now the world's biggest chocolate eaters, whose average consumption is closer to 9kg a year.

Emmanuel says his next goal is to make a chocolate bar that still has the quality and hallmark of Instant Chocolat, but that is affordable for everyone.

"We have to come up with a reasonable price," he says, something that is on Mroueh's radar too.

"It's a shame that we are the first producer of cocoa but Ivorians don't even know the taste of chocolate or what the world is doing with their beans," she says.

Mroueh is working on designing cheaper packaging in order to reduce the price. She wants to launch a second chocolate bar to be sold in supermarkets and smaller shops, while keeping the deluxe version in boutiques and cafes because she says everyone here "has the right to taste chocolate and appreciate this brilliant product".

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