Kola nuts are distributed during an engagement ceremony in Burkina Faso.

The kola nut, widely prized in West Africa for its symbolic and cultural value and stimulative properties, is mainly produced in five West African countries. A significant source of revenue, it deserves more attention from the producer countries.

The Cola genus includes about forty species in West Africa, and of these the most important are Cola acuminata (Abata kola) and Cola nitida (Gbanja kola). Some 90% of all kola nuts consumed worldwide come from the Cola nitida. Originating in tropical Africa, the kola nut is mainly produced in Nigeria (170,190 t) and Côte d’Ivoire (67,000 t), followed by Cameroon (38,000 t), Ghana (21,300 t) and Sierra Leone (5,300 t) (Source: FAO 2010). This leafy tree, which grows to a height of about 12 metres, produces fruits – kola nuts – with a strong bitter taste. Native to forested areas, it needs a humid climate with a dry season of no more than 3 months. The tree is also grown, though on a much smaller scale, in the Caribbean – in Jamaica – and in Fiji. The kola nut contains two alkaloids which help combat fatigue and suppress hunger. Used in traditional medicine, it is also in demand with pharmaceutical companies and valued for its use in dyes. But the kola’s main use is cultural. In many West African countries, there is hardly a baptism, wedding or ritual ceremony where this nut does not feature.

The kola nut is therefore an important commodity and a significant source of revenue for many households, both urban and rural, as well as for governments. Now also exported to the West (USA) and India, it provides good returns to producer countries, especially Côte d’Ivoire, the global hub for kola production and trade, with annual exports of 100 billion FCFA (€152 million), according to a study by NGO INADES-Formation in Côte d’Ivoire.

Obstacles to export

In Côte d’Ivoire, the kola nut is harvested from 15 ha plantations. But in this country, as in Nigeria, orchards are ageing and farmers have difficulty finding selected seeds; tree seedlings from nurseries are prohibitively expensive.

There is little in the way of processing in Africa and the kola nut is exported raw in a poorly organised supply chain. Fresh nuts are transported in containers that seek to maintain a degree of humidity. In Jamaica, the nut is known as ‘bissy’ and is processed into powder before being consumed diluted in water with sugar or honey.

The kola economy is highly speculative in the West African sub-region. Governments play no role in trading and there is no guaranteed price for the producer. Although not subject to specific taxes within WAEMU (in common with fruit and vegetables), the precious nut faces a number of hurdles before it can cross borders, including customs and police checks, much to the frustration of traders. Producers are highly dependent on exporters, who set the prices. For the latter, the sector can be very profitable: a study carried out in the Grand Nord region of Cameroon shows that 89% of wholesale traders working with kola earn most if not all their revenue from this product.

Better production, better sales

There is good scope for improving and developing the sector at all levels. As far as production is concerned, priorities are access to better seeds and renewing Cola trees. Storage and conservation of the kola nut is another area requiring attention, in order to cut high levels of post-harvest loss and improve often erratic product quality.

On the marketing side, there is a need for better organisation, though this does not necessarily mean increasing the number of people involved. In Côte d’Ivoire for example, there are a great many kola nut producers’ associations which often have difficulty reaching agreements with one another. A Côte d’Ivoire official from the Ministry of Agriculture’s department of professional agricultural organisations has been appointed to overhaul organisation of the sector, a sign that the government is aware both of the importance of kola and of its present shortcomings.

But the most pressing need is at sub-regional level. It is crucial to improve the flow of traffic between countries. This product, which is emblematic of the sub-region and knows no boundaries when it comes to consumption, should be able to travel freely without being taxed at the slightest move.

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