African Cashew Farmers Cash In On Lactose-Intolerant Americans

Salty-snack junkies, the lactose-intolerant and lovers of Asian food are providing an economic boost for farmers in the war-torn northern provinces of Ivory Coast.

Women in Burkina Faso prepare cashews for packaging.
Women in Burkina Faso prepare cashews for packaging.
Olivier Monnier and Ben Stupples

ABIDJAN â€" The West African country is poised to surpass India as the world's top grower of cashews. Ivory Coast output has tripled in the past decade, including a jump after the civil war ended in 2011, industry data show. At the same time, prices have rallied as global exports surged along with rising consumption in the U.S., China and India. Long a staple in Asian cooking, the nut increasingly is eaten raw as a snack, and companies like WhiteWave Foods Co. use it to make non-dairy beverages and ice cream.

While people still consume far more peanuts â€" not technically a nut but treated like one â€" cashews have become a relative bargain among tree nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and hazelnuts. Almonds surged to records over the past two years during a prolonged drought in California, the biggest grower. Ivory Coast, already the world's top cocoa exporter, saw the value of its cashew shipments rise almost 50% this year to become the nation's second-most valuable crop. "Cashew nuts are now the cheapest tree nuts on the market," Pierre Ricau, an agriculture market analyst at N'Kalô Market Intelligence Services of Rongead, a non-profit providing agriculture assistance in developing countries, said in an interview from Lyon, France. "The snack market keeps developing, but the industry has the wind in its sails when it comes to ingredient usage."

The global cashew market last year was valued at $4.69 billion, compared with $8.32 billion for almonds, $7.33 billion for pistachios, and $6.45 billion for walnuts, according to the International Nut & Dried Fruit Council.

Rising incomes in the emerging economies of Asia are a major driver of cashew demand, especially in India, where the nut is ground to a paste for curries and sweets. Demand in the country, which also processes raw cashews for export, more than doubled to 240,000 metric tons of kernels since 2004, according to the African Cashew Initiative in Accra, Ghana. In China, purchases reached 50,000 tons, up from almost nothing a decade ago.

Imported trees

"The market has undergone huge change," said Rita Weidinger, executive director at the ACI. "The production cannot keep up, meaning there is limited stock available."

Cashews aren't native to Ivory Coast. Trees were imported in the 1960s to reforest the arid northern provinces to prevent the encroaching Sahara desert. They were mostly ignored as a commercial crop until the 1990s, when impoverished northern farmers sought alternatives to soil-damaging crops like cotton and yams. Cocoa is grown mostly in the south.

Expansion of the cashew industry has aided economic recovery following a decade-long civil war that divided a rebel- held north from the government-controlled south. A disputed election in 2010 sparked five months of violence and 3,000 deaths. Since 2011, the economy expanded 9% annually on average, and the government is targeting 10% this year.

"Cashews give hope to the north," Malamine Sanogo, head of the industry regulator, the Cashew & Cotton Council, said in an interview from Abidjan. "Everybody recognizes that living conditions have improved."

Ivory Coast production reached 625,000 tons of cashews in shells as of June 30, compared with 185,000 tons in 2005, council data show. Next year, the country aims to produce 700,000 tons and pass India by 2017, Sanogo said. The country still doesn't have much processing capacity, so it ships mostly nuts in shells, which are removed at plants in Asia and then sold as kernels domestically or re-exported.

Prices paid to farmers averaged 410 CFA francs (69 cents) per kilo in 2015, up 37% from the previous year. The rally helped boost export earnings from cashews to 327 billion CFA francs in the season that ended this June, about 50% more a year earlier, government data show.

Nalourou Kone, a 47-year-old farmer in the northern town of Dianra, says the cashew money is changing how people live. Villagers are buying motorcycles instead of bicycles and houses made of brick rather than straw. His 10-hectare (25-acre) farm earned 5.2 million CFA Francs this year, triple what he got in 2010, and now he's planning to expand by 20 hectares.

"It has changed many things in my life," said Kone, who used to drive tractors for rice farms before he started growing cashews. "It has helped me get my children to school and build a small house."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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