Some four years ago, German importer Biotriopic introduced organic farming to Ivory Coast. Investment in Africa has not always been easy, but so far it's been a success story.
There's a scent of lemon in the cold storage complex outside of the German city of Duisburg. Boxes and shelves with bananas, mangos, coconuts, lemons, oranges and pineapples fill the halls from floor to ceiling. At the open gate, a forklift is piling goods onto a waiting truck.
Biotropic is one of Germany's largest importers of organic fruits and vegetables. It all started back in 1997, with organic bananas from the Dominican Republic. Today it's anything from kiwis, nuts, dates to oranges - shipped from all corners of the earth.
Pineapples from Ivory Coast
Four years ago, Biotropic began campaigning for organic pineapple to be grown in Ivory Coast. The German company worked with the local cooperative Ivoire Organics. "We only had a few earlier attempts in a few other countries such as Cameron, where it didn't work out," explained Kuemkwong Siemefo, head of Africa operations at Biotronic.
"Then we went to Ivory Coast where the infrastructure was excellent. We were lucky that the farmers we worked with have a long tradition of growing pineapple," Siemefo added.
Since the 1970s, the West African country has been one of the largest pineapple producers for the European market. But around the turn of the century, production shrunk by more than 20 percent. The civil war scared off investors and buyers, and especially smaller producers had trouble getting their goods onto the international market. For many farmers, this meant unemployment.
Thanks to the cooperation with Biotropic, plenty of jobs have been created, said Paul Stephane Goa Pegnene, CEO of Ivoire Organics. "We've recruited people from the villages for the work. The smaller producers used to not have the resources to continue growing pineapple. But with the investments of Biotropic, we were able to support them."
The German company got help from Sequa, a development cooperation organization in Bonn, Germany. In 2008 and 2010, Sequa helped with know-how, and above all with money.
Investments in Africa bear a high risk, said Siemefo. "Sequa was the right partner to minimize those risks. Without that financial backing we would not have made that step," he added.
Goals left to reach
For Sequa, it was not just about pineapples, but also about knowledge transfer. A new institute founded at the Abodo Adjame University was supposed to spread technical organic farming expertise across the country. But the cooperation with the university failed for political reasons, said Susanne Sattlegger of Sequa. Nonetheless, she still concludes, positively, that cooperation with the local farmers has worked out well.
"The reason why not all of the development policy goals were archived here, was because of such extreme factors like environment, climate, and also the problematic cooperation with the university for political reasons," Sattlegger explained.
"But those are all things that neither we nor Biotropic would have been able to influence one way or another," she said.
Despite problems, Biotropic has extended it's investments in Ivory Coast. It started with 10 employees and an area of just two hectares some four years ago - today there are around 50 farmers working 70 hectares for Biotropic. An additional 20 small farmers sell their produce to Ivoire Organics.
Biotropic supplies the cooperative with seeds and machinery, and finances the organic certification process. Aside from pineapple, the farmers now also grow cashew nuts, mangos and coconuts for Biotropic. Soon, bananas and cocoa will be added to this list.