When crossing the threshold of Jean-Eudes Kacou’s plantation in Tiassalé, it’s hard for the uninitiated to guess what the star crop is. The pepper vines are wrapped around natural stakes, sometimes mirabelle plum trees, sometimes cocoa plants, and blend discreetly into the landscape.
On this particular morning, the owner welcomes us at the entrance to his plantation with a smile on his face. In his forties, he’s slim, wearing worn rubber boots and a straw hat. A rural dress code for a businessman who has decided to apply the techniques he learned in business school in France and China to the plantation of his late father, Pierre Claver Kacou.
The tour begins. From the cuttings to the different evolutions of the vines, the planter-boss is inexhaustible. Ever since he decided to devote himself exclusively to pepper in 2019, he has spoken about it with passion. “It’s a local crop,” he explains. “Even if you take cuttings here and plant them in Azaguié [in the southern part of the same region, about 30km from Abidjan], their berries will take on the taste of Azaguié soil, and vice versa.”
Growing pepper also requires patience and daily care. The vines start to produce at the age of three or four years, and from seven years onwards their berries are really profitable. A plantation has a lifespan of 30 years. Kacou’s is on its 28th. For some time now, he has been planting new seedlings, gradually, so that they can take over.
From father to son
Born in Abidjan, the young Jean-Eudes Kacou spent his weekends in Tiassalé on the plantation of his father, a magistrate who liked to hunt in the countryside, but the younger Kacou was far from imagining that one day he would devote his life to agricultural work. On his farm, which was mainly devoted to the cultivation of passion fruit, his father had reserved only a small plot for pepper cultivation. Today, the crop occupies seven of the farm’s 10 hectares.
The plantation is populated by various crops (pineapple, papaya, cocoa, cassava, etc.). The rainfall is fairly regular. A stream, a tributary of the Bandama River, runs through it.
With a bunch in his hand, Jean-Eudes Kacou begins to explain the process of transforming the flower into a berry. All types of pepper are produced here: white, red and black. He stopped using pesticides about 10 years ago and advocates organic farming.
He also makes his own natural fertiliser, the raw material for which comes mainly from waste from the plantation. This production choice has an impact on the yield. Instead of an average of one tonne per hectare, he harvests around 400kg. This is a conscious choice by the man who wants to elevate Tiassalé pepper to the rank of an exceptional spice.
Most expensive in the world
With the six other growers in the area, they have created an association and are trying to define a common set of specifications in order to standardise the quality of their production and to be able to group it together. “We want to define what Tiassalé pepper is,” says Kacou.
“The objective, then, is to do what was done for the Cameroon pepper – or Penja pepper – which is the first African product to have received a protected geographical indication (PGI). Today, it is one of the most expensive peppers in the world,” he says.
The project is ambitious but, for the time being, pepper growing is still in its infancy in Côte d’Ivoire because, although the plant was introduced during colonisation, the first large plantations only date from the early 1990s. They are mostly concentrated in the Azaguié region and in recent years have tended to spread to more southern regions of the country.
The sector’s members are trying to organise themselves. “Pepper, like kola, is one of the emerging crops in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Solange Chiepo Atse. She is the head of the Société Coopérative des Producteurs de Poivre d’Éburnie (SCPPE), which was set up two years ago and has 35 growers, each of whom cultivates between 1ha and 20ha.
“There is no policy as such for its production. But the Fonds Interprofessionnel pour la Recherche et le Conseil Agricoles [FIRCA] is conducting studies. At the end of April, for example, we had a workshop with the fund on the subject,” she says.
The idea was to share their experience and standardise their production in order to conquer new markets. SCPPE is being supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the German international development cooperation agency, to obtain Ecocert certification. The process should be completed by the end of the year and enable them to position themselves on the European market, both in food and, if necessary, in cosmetics and health.
“The vast majority of producers in Côte d’Ivoire grow black pepper, the others being more delicate to produce. But this is a mistake, as it is the least profitable,” says Atse.
“In 2016-2017, pepper was sold at 6,000 CFA francs per kilo ($9.8/kg). Today, it sells for 2,000 CFA francs at the market. Ivorians do not consume much of it. And the real problem is that we are inundated with poor-quality pepper from Asia. The pepper from Côte d’Ivoire is among the best, but the producers are forced to sell off their crops,” says the producer, who hopes to see the establishment of a marketplace with fixed purchase prices, as in other sectors.
While waiting to conquer the shelves of European grocery shops and supermarkets, Jean-Eudes Kacou is taking another gamble. He has created a brand, Kapecé (his father’s initials, an homage), which he positions as a high-end product. “Many people are still following the old pattern, i.e. producing, stocking and finding a retailer. When I did my calculations, I realised that producing a kilo of pepper cost me 5,000 CFA francs,” he said.
“It was out of the question to sell it for 2,000 or 3,000 francs and we decided to stop offering it in bulk. It was only once we started processing it that it became profitable.”
In 2019, following a training course at the European Institute for Cooperation and Development (French acronym IECD), which helps small-scale producers better organise themselves and process their products, Kacou won a competition, whose prize of six million CFA francs enabled him, among other things, to better structure his small business and set up a processing unit.
He has also launched several products, such as green pepper pasta, biscuits and sweets. In addition to direct sales, he targets delicatessens – with which he can make higher margins – concept stores, and restaurants. This strategy has enabled him to make a good living.
“We have also started to export and are currently working primarily with two delicatessens in France. Our prices per kilo vary between 15,000 and 40,000 CFA francs, depending on the type of pepper,” says Kacou, who employs six full-time staff, as well as outside labour for occasional assignments, particularly during the harvest period.
In addition to selling his products, the farmer has decided to open his plantation to the public. For 10,000 CFA francs per person, he gives a guided tour, after which he offers a tasting session of the different types of pepper. He believes in this activity because the plantation is only 100km from Abidjan and Tiassalé has a lot of tourist potential (for example, the more adventurous can take a boat trip to see the hippos of the Bandama River).
On the day we visited, a worker was busy finishing the construction of a bamboo hut in the middle of the property, which will now allow visitors to extend their experience at the heart of the plantation, enjoying the fresh air and birdsong.
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