A worker on Pascal Gagbo’s farm checks on their bananas (Gitonga Njeru)
Pascal Gagbo, 26, is a young man from Côte d'Ivoire who has prospered from the fruit export business and counts himself as one of a growing group of local millionaires in the industry. Gagbo got his big break seven years ago.
"I [currently] own an 11-acre (4.45-hectare) farm not far from Abidjan [the country's economic capital on the south coast]. I did not have any income in 2011 and was in a quandary about what to do with my life," he said.
He took a chance and submitted a business proposal for an agricultural grant in a pilot project at that time, and was awarded a grant of $5,000. He set up a fruit farm that now provides direct and indirect jobs to more than 12,000 people in an operation with revenue of $1.2 million annually.
Gagbo grows bananas, papayas, mangoes, tomatoes and watermelons, exporting up to 90 percent of his produce. He said the key to his success has been strict financial planning, resulting in half of his produce being value added.
"Value addition, such as turning my mangoes into juice, is helping expand my business. I then package them and export them to different destinations including France and China," said Gagbo. He is waiting to increase exports to China once the legal frameworks between Côte d'Ivoire and China are finalized this year.
To assist young farmers, the Ivorian Government provides free training via agricultural extension services workers.
"They train us on pest management and agricultural methods that will help produce more crops. If you do not have experience, the lessons are invaluable," said Gagbo.
Gagbo is among the more than 800, mainly young men and women, who have received grants of different amounts from the Government of Côte d'Ivoire for business startups. While not all have become millionaires, each has improved their livelihood. The agrobusiness is one of the largest growing sectors in Côte d'Ivoire economy. Many of these young farmers inherited their land or made arrangements to buy land with their grants and subsequent earnings. A big percentage of the young farmers are shunning cocoa which still remains Côte d'Ivoire's main agricultural export and turning to the more lucrative fruit and vegetable business.
In January 2009, the Government of Côte d'Ivoire published its first Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. After civil conflict came to an end in April 2011, many young people migrated back to rural areas from the cities to set up businesses and take advantage of a pilot agrobusiness project at the time.
"Through a national Youth Policy that was [later] drafted in 2014 and approved the same year, we as a government encouraged young people to move into rural areas and venture into agrobusiness. With annual loans from the European Union of different amounts, we have been offering them [young farmers] grants [of around] $5,000 a person via various government agencies," said Daniel Kablan Duncan, Côte d'Ivoire's Vice President during the Sixth European African Business Forum held in Abidjan on November 27, 2017.
"China has also provided grants to our government since 2011 for agrobusiness objectives. So we are grateful to China and the European Union through the European Investment Bank for creating opportunities," said Duncan. According to the University of Abidjan presentation at the forum, the Chinese Government has been providing the Government of Côte d'Ivoire grants since 2011 of about $45 million per year to fund government youth empowerment programs, especially in agricultural sector. The amount is expected to increase to $50 million this year.
According to Duncan, China has built world-class roads and bridges that link Abidjan, the world's third largest French-speaking city after Paris and Kinshasa, to many rural areas, helping to transport the agricultural produce to the coast for export.
According to the Government of Côte d'Ivoire, about 63 percent of the country's total population of almost 24 million is comprised of people aged below 35 years.
World Bank statistics show that Côte d'Ivoire still exports about 1.79 million tons of cocoa per year, representing 35 percent of total global exports; however, because of a drop in cocoa prices in the international market, this figure is declining annually, says the bank. This has prompted young people keen on farming to turn to horticulture.
"Finding a way of reducing urban migration and dealing with rural poverty head to head is a good way to tackle many social and economic issues affecting Africa. You simply just create opportunities to reduce rural-urban migration," said Alison Zumpano, one of the Youth Policy project partners with the Government of Côte d'Ivoire from GOPA Worldwide consultants in Germany.
According to statistics from the World Bank, Côte d'Ivoire was the 75th largest export economy in the world in 2016. Also the Bretton Woods Institution has rated Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa's third largest economy, standing at $36.1 billion, as one of the top 10 growing economies in the world.
Total fruit exports, mostly bananas, mangoes and tomatoes, totaled $933 million in 2016, according to statistics from the University of Abidjan presented at the forum.
"Over 135,000 hectares of land in Côte d'Ivoire is under cultivation of more than 400 types of fruits. This is the opportunity agrobusiness offers in this country and why young people are earnest and eager [to get involved]," said Francòs Toure, a senior agronomist with the country's Ministry of Agriculture.
"The Ivorian road network, which spreads to about 87,000 km, and one of world's longest bridges set to be built by China, will link Abidjan to Yamoussoukro [the capital city of Côte d'Ivoire] leading to more trade and commerce," he added.
Analysts compare the road infrastructure of Abidjan similar to that of Paris or Cairo and essential to provide the necessary network for the agrobusiness.
"The country has four international airports with the largest being Port Bouet Airport located 16 km south of Abidjan. Weekly cargo flights are available to all parts of the world," said Johana Adama, a local travel agent.
(Reporting from Côte d'Ivoire)