* Louis Dreyfus already signed up for investment
* Move to diversify from cocoa
* Demand rises: average citizen eats 63 kilos rice a year
By Gus Trompiz
PARIS, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast aims to end its reliance on imports and become self-sufficient in rice within three years by using foreign firms to drive a jump in output, officials said on Tuesday.
The ambitious plan is part of a $4 billion investment programme in agriculture to 2016 that calls for 2.4 million new jobs, diversification beyond the dominant cocoa sector and greater domestic processing of commodities.
Africa’s dependence on rice imports became marked during a global surge in agricultural commodity prices in 2007-2008 that fuelled protests in some countries.
“What has changed since the crisis of 2007-2008 is the consciousness among African countries that we should exploit our natural potential,” Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister Mamadou Sangofowa Coulibaly told reporters at the annual Paris farm show.
“In Ivory Coast, we’re talking about 63 kilos per inhabitant per year, it’s considerable,” he said of rice consumption.
The country is pinning its hopes on foreign companies, like trading giant Louis Dreyfus Commodities, with which it has signed agreements under which the firms will oversee rice output and marketing in 10 production zones.
Alongside Louis Dreyfus, which unveiled a year ago plans to invest up to $62 million jointly with the Ivorian government in raising rise output, the authorities have signed investment agreements with foreign firms including Cevital, Export Trading Group and Ameropa, said Yacouba Dembele, head of the Ivorian rice office.
To meet annual demand of around 1.5 million tonnes from an Ivorian population of 24 million, the government plans to raise milled rice output to 1.9 million tonnes in 2016, opening the possibility the country could become a rice exporter, he said.
Ivory Coast has in recent years imported as much as 1 million tonnes annually.
The foreign companies would expand milling capacity and coordinate marketing of local production, he said, noting that a rise in paddy rice output last year on the back of new seed varieties had strained processing capacity.
Provisional estimates for 2013 already showed that domestic output rose to just over 1 million tonnes while imports fell to 800,000 tonnes, he said.
Rising rice consumption would mean meeting demand would be challenging enough without also attempting exports, he said.
“Demand in 2016 could be above the 1.9 million tonnes we are aiming for. We have to move faster.” (Editing by William Hardy)