Behind Benin’s harvest, worries over ‘monopoly’

Sophie Bouillon –
The town of Bohicon in southern-central Benin roars into life during the cotton harvest between January and March.
Trucks carrying ‘white gold’ trundle down the roads to the town’s cotton-processing plant.
Yerima Fousseni, head of the cotton-growers cooperative in Wewe district farther north, says 2018 has been a bumper harvest — more than 46 tonnes, triple last year’s yield.
That Benin’s cotton sector is booming is clear. The country is the fourth biggest producer in Africa, with exports in 2018 set to reach more than 530,000 tonnes after 451,000 tonnes in 2017 and 324,000 tonnes in 2016.
Everyone has benefited from the boost but some more than others — and many are wondering why.
Some say the downstream part of the industry is in the hands of a de facto monopoly, dominated by companies linked to Benin’s president, Patrice Talon.
Talon made a fortune in the cotton industry before coming to power in 2016 on a campaign promise to revive it.
Once in office, he vowed he would part with his own interests in the sector.
But the degree to which Talon has kept this promise remains unclear.
Sodeco and ICA, two companies in which he has historically been the major shareholder, manage or own virtually all of Benin’s cotton ginners.
Companies historically owned or part-owned by Talon are also major players in transporting the raw cotton, handling cotton seeds and in ports where the commodity is exported.
How far Talon has since divested or distanced himself from these companies remains sketchy.
The situation has fed accusations of unfair practices in a sector where competition is tough.
One such critic is Martin Rodriguez, a wealthy Benin entrepreneur who says he lost his entire investment in his home country.
In 1997, he built a ginning plant in Nikki, in northeast Benin, but it operated at less than full capacity. He accuses the state — at the time, Benin’s president was Mathieu Kerekou — of starving him of supplies of raw cotton.
Crippled with debt, the factory was sold at auction in November last at a knockdown price of $5.5 million. It is now run by Sodeco, says Rodriguez, who has launched a judicial appeal in the case.
“Talon has taken politics into business and business into politics,” said Rodriguez.
Abel Gbetoenonmon of a not-for-profit monitoring group called Social Watch Benin said concerns about conflicts of interest mounted after the industry was re-organised after Talon took office. — AFP