November 23, 2009 / 3:12 PM / 11 years ago

Ivorian cocoa season defies with strong start

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A strong start to Ivory Coast’s cocoa season has brightened the outlook for the full-year harvest in the world’s top supplier, which exporters had worried would plumb a fresh multi-year low.

A man grades cocoa beans in a warehouse in Gonate, western Ivory Coast, September 22, 2008. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Cocoa output in the first six weeks of the season, which began on October 1, is running more than 75 percent ahead of last year and is topping the five-year average thanks to favourable weather in the principal growing regions.

“We were waiting for this and this is a reflection of a pretty good start to the season,” said the local head of a cocoa exporting company in San Pedro.

International cocoa markets closely watch production in Ivory Coast, source of 40 percent of the world’s beans, particularly after the weakest harvest since 2004 last year helped drive prices to 30-year highs.

Exporters and traders polled by Reuters in late September said they expected this season to be even worse than last year, as persistent underinvestment in the civil war-scarred country, along with administrative chaos, continues to bite.

Output during the 2008-09 season barely topped 1.2 million tonnes, with estimates for the current season at 1 to 1.15 million tonnes, according to the poll.

But the West African nation, which depends on the health of its cocoa sector for a chunk of government revenues, appears to have gotten a reprieve from favourable weather.

“I can no longer keep the same forecast as I had at the start given these rains,” said another exporter, adding he expected the full season to produce 1.4 million tonnes — which would the highest in at least six years.

(Click here for a graphic showing Ivorian cocoa arrivals since the 2004-05 season: here )

BIG NUMBERS

Some 284,325 tonnes of cocoa have arrived at ports between the start of the season on October 1 and November 15, according to official data from the Ivorian marketing body obtained by Reuters on Monday.

That compares to the historically low 161,554 tonnes during the same period a year ago, and to a five-year average for the period of just over 252,000 tonnes, according to Reuters data.

Exporters estimate another 51,000 tonnes arrived in port between November 16 and November 22, which would bring arrivals to 335,000 tonnes compared to the average of just over 305,000 during the previous five seasons.

Arrivals figures for last week were also revised upward by some 23,749 tonnes — among a handful of revisions so far to include figures reported late by exporters to the official marketing body, BCC.

The strong output has come amid robust rainfall early in the season that produced high quantities of buds and is expected to help sustain plantations through the coming dry season, marked by the Dec-Mar harmattan winds from the Sahara.

“In our forecasts, we wished for abundant rains up to this point. That has happened. We think the conditions are coming together for a big harvest through February,” said farmer Attoungbre Kouame.

Other exporters and farmers caution, however, that it is too early to predict a strong overall harvest, warning a change to unfavourable weather could cause cocoa output to crash later on in the year.

“Up to now, we can say that output is good. But the chance of a steep and quick drop exists after January despite the rains over the past few weeks,” said one exporter.

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