Cote d’Ivoire Deep Dive Part I: Akwaba, an attractive land of prosperity
March 15, 2024
Abderrahmane Chaoui

Credit: Eva Blue, from Unsplash

In the late 70s, after only 2 decades as an independent nation under the presidency of Félix Houphouët Boigny, observers had high hopes for Cote d’Ivoire’s development and its ability to become a model for neighbouring West African countries. The growing demand for Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa and coffee, driven by the industrialisation and the consequent improvement of living standards in Europe, had stimulated the country’s economy and industrialisation to the point of being referred to as “The Ivorian Miracle” on the international scene.

Only 10 years later, the country sunk irretrievably into a tragedy that is unfortunately too well known to the continent. Ten years of economic recession during the 80s plunged the country into political instability against a backdrop of corruption and ethnic tensions, eventually leading to a series of coups and civil wars during the early 2000s that undermined Cote d’Ivoire’s economic potential. That potential still demonstrates its existence every time the country experiences stability.

In power since the early 2010s, Alassane Ouattara won his third mandate in 2020, ensuring a degree of stability in defiance of the country’s Constitution. The economy seems to be picking up again (7–8% GDP growth rate), the fastest-growing in West Africa, demonstrating once again Cote d’Ivoire’s immense economic potential. Since then, an ecosystem with a unique form has developed in the country, following a bottom-up dynamic and driven by expat entrepreneurs from the region, attracted to the country’s economic potential, its welcoming framework to foreign investments and its relatively large market (30m+ people).

In the shadow of neighbouring behemoth Nigeria and competitor Ghana, and less loud than its more outspoken French-speaking competitor Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire’s ecosystem is interesting from many perspectives. No mega-deal ($100m+) has ever happened in the country as of January 2024, no unicorn has popped up, yet it is home to some of the most successful entrepreneurial stories in the continent and the first destination market for neighbouring African startups.

In this Deep Dive, we will look at Cote d’Ivoire’s history and political and economic trajectory to understand the current shape of its ecosystem. We will look at the specificities of this ecosystem, its strengths, weaknesses and short and mid-term perspectives, with our journey taking place in 4 parts. Part I focuses on Cote d’Ivoire’s pre-independence period, with Part II considering the country’s economic development post-independence. Part III looks at the ecosystem’s early beginnings and development, while Part IV considers the Ivorian ecosystem’s recent history and its role within the broader West African ecosystem.

“Akwaba” — A multiethnic land of welcome

The present-day territory of Cote d’Ivoire stretches from the Gulf of Guinea in the south to the 11th parallel in the north, where it shares borders with present-day Burkina Faso and Mali. It is bordered in part by Liberia and Guinea in the west and Ghanain in the east in the heart of West Africa. From a climate perspective, the country is divided in two with what used to be a heavy rainforest in the south and a savannah in the north with its driest climate, a demarcation line that would hold its importance over the course of history. As of the 2020s, Cote d’Ivoire is now home to over 60 different ethnic groups, with the largest including the Akan, Voltaique (also known as the Gur), the Northern Mande, the Kru, the Southern Mande, and a large expat population.

Similar to what happened in Benin or Ghana, the first trade relations with Europeans involved the wealthiest tribes, mostly living in the resource-rich rainforest in the south around the 15th Century. The Portuguese and Dutch merchants established their first trade counters along the shores of Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin. Early European traders were later joined in the 17th Century by the French and the British, attracted to the region for its ivory and gold. Cote d’Ivoire’s name attests to this predatory colonial mindset, with the Gold Coast (now Ghana) another example, with both countries also victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade..

Competition between European colonial powers turned firstly in favour of the British, pushing from the east (Nigeria, Niger, Ghana), then in favour of the French, counter-attacking to fill the gaps with their Western possessions (Senegal, Mali). In March 1893, following a series of exploratory missions carried out in the hinterland, the status of Cote d’Ivoire and the nature of its relationship with France changed from a privileged trading partner to an autonomous French colony administered by France with subordinate ties to the indigenous population.

The French colonisation of Cote d’Ivoire took place in two phases. The first decade saw the administration of power mostly focus on the trading of existing resources. Coffee and cocoa were then introduced in the region, persuading France to accelerate the colonisation of the northern regions further. Motivated by the economic potential of these newly discovered resources, this second phase of colonisation, from 1900 to 1920, was one of the lengthiest and bloodiest in the country’s colonial history. Forms of opposition were encountered in all regions but varied in intensity, were staggered over time and were rarely coordinated with each other. In 1920, the whole country was unified under the border we now know for the first time in its history. France began restructuring Côte d’Ivoire’s agricultural economy and building major transport infrastructure within the country (roads, ports, electricity) and between neighbouring colonies (such as Burkina Faso and Mali) to ensure the sustainability of their trading venture.

During French rule, the 60+ tribes that populated the territory remained more or less autonomous, being subordinate to the French administration and excluded from basic social services the central government was supposed to provide (education, health etc.). Since only a minority had access to education, most of these people kept speaking their mother tongue and dialects, prohibiting them from further cultural exchange and integration. A privileged few nonetheless had access to the colonial schooling system. Among them was a young child by the name of Dia Houphouët-Boigny, who would become Cote d’Ivoire’s first president 50 years later.

This concludes Part I of our four-part Deep Dive into Cote d’Ivoire’s tech ecosystem. Part II will assess the socio-economic changes that occurred following Ivorian independence, culminating in a bloody decade and foreign intervention.

Abderrahmane Chaoui is an African ecosystem researcher, consultant, and writer.