Sahara Desert Winds Threaten World's Largest Cocoa Producers

  • Harmattan winds that may damage cocoa came earlier than normal
  • Weather event off to a severe starts in Ivory Coast, Ghana

Dry winds from the Sahara desert have blanketed Ghana and Ivory Coast and may damage cocoa crops in the world’s largest producers of the chocolate ingredient.

Harmattan winds, which usually blow from the Sahara desert from December to February, are early and severe in coastal areas of Ivory Coast, which accounts for almost 40 percent of global production, Antoine Koffi Kouassi, an independent meteorologist, said by phone from Abidjan. Dry weather caused by the Harmattan is “very severe” so far, according to Charles York, the principal meteorologist at the Ghana Meteorological Agency.

The winds bring dry and unseasonable cool weather to West Africa, with crops including cocoa potentially being damaged as rains usually fall below average. Cocoa prices, already up 17 percent this year, could gain a further boost from Harmattan winds as production could be short of demand.

“The winds could dry up the young flowers on the cocoa trees and the flowers may turn yellow and fall," said Kouassi. “They may have a negative impact on the fruiting period and hurt the mid-crop," he said, referring to the smaller of two annual harvests that typically starts around April in Ivory Coast, the No. 1 cocoa grower.

Cocoa, already this year’s best-performing commodity in the Standard & Poor’s index of 24 raw materials, rose 0.1 percent to $3,387 a metric ton on the ICE Futures U.S. exchange by 8:43 a.m. in New York. The winds, which could knock off flowers that develop into cocoa pods, will add to woes in Ghana, where farmers harvested the smallest crop in five years in the 2014-15 season ended in September.

The Harmattan has been “very severe from the onset and could abort budding cocoa pods,” York of the Ghana Meteorological Agency said by phone in the capital Accra on Monday. The dry conditions will continue until Dec. 13, he said.

Early Harmattan

While the Harmattan started earlier than normal, MDA Weather Services says the strongest part won’t be felt until January, Donald Keeney, a meteorologist at the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based forecaster, said in an e-mailed response to questions Monday. This will probably lead to some stress on mid-crop growth, he said.

“By February, conditions should improve a bit in Ivory Coast, while the drier pattern will likely continue in Ghana and Nigeria,” he said.

Harmattan winds are starting early just as wet weather that had returned to West Africa was benefiting crops. Rainfall in Ivory Coast from the start of October through Dec. 2 was 30 percent above normal, data from Speedwell Weather showed. Dry weather earlier in the year was threatening harvests, with Ghana facing the driest third quarter in 35 years, according to Olam International, the third-largest cocoa processor.

“Harmattan at this time of the year is very troubling,” Samuel Quainoo, a 54-year-old farmer who grows 124 acres (50 hectares) in the western part of Ghana, said by phone. “We haven’t gotten sufficient rains so far this season. We expected some intermittent showers to help the pods at this time of the year.”

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