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Welcome to Yop City’s zone: Abidjan’s thriving industrial hub

victoria.crandall@gmail.com42 views

My hand in the air, I flag down a bright orange taxi.

“Bonjour. Je vais à Yopougon, zone industrielle,” I said to the driver in my flat American-tinged French.

We soon speed off to Abidjan’s thriving industrial hub.

Yop City, as it is affectionately called by Ivorians, is not only Abidjan’s largest suburb, occupying a vast space to the west of the city center; it is the ground zero of Côte d’Ivoire’s tiny but thriving manufacturing sector.

A sprawling suburb, Yopougon is also the home of Aya, the spunky heroine of the eponymous graphic novels.
Yopougon is also the home of Aya, the spunky heroine of the eponymous graphic novels

All of Côte d’Ivoire’s local champions, producing chemicals to foodstuffs to cosmetics to paper products, are located in “le zone,” a beehive of economic activity.

I first visited the industrial zone to tour a palm oil refinery when I was working at a local bank.

The €50mn refinery was impressive with gleaming Belgian imported machinery and an efficient bottle assembling line.

For me, the refinery represented a bright spot in the Ivorian economy, which like its West African neighbors, has traditionally relied on commodity exports.

The refinery produced a mass-market consumer good (vegetable oil) from a locally sourced agricultural commodity (palm oil) for the domestic market, creating much-needed jobs and cutting back on import spending.

And, it wasn’t just the refinery. Lining the dirt roads crisscrossing the industrial zone, factories cranking out cosmetics, paper products, and plastic goods generated wealth in a country where industrialization has failed to take root.

Back in the bank office, I was surprised by the reaction of a top manager after I told him about my factory visit to Yopougon.

“Really? You went to Yopougon’s industrial zone?” he asked, eyebrows arched.

I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm as I recounted the factory visit though it fell on deaf ears. The manager was clearly bemused that a white lady in a business suit was touring a factory in the city’s gritty (*gasp* working-class) industrial zone.

At first glance, 'le zone' can appear grim, but it represents a bright spot in the local economy
At first glance, ‘le zone’ can appear grim, but it represents a bright spot in the local economy

After that maiden trip a year ago, I am back in Yop City, starting a project with a new client.

My client, an Ivorian cocoa exporter, had recently moved its office to the industrial zone after setting up a small cocoa grinding factory.

After passing the palm oil refinery on the highway that snakes through Yopougon and leads out of the city to the country’s north, I couldn’t remember where to turn off to reach my client’s office.

I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at the nearest Total gas station.

While waiting for my client’s driver, I take in the scene around me as I sit down on a bench, squinting in the bright sun.

Large trucks laden with goods lumber into the gas station, fueling up for a long trip upcountry.

Lebanese men ensconced in shiny SUVs speed through the parking lot, heading off for a day’s work in the surrounding factories, which are probably owned by their families, cousins, or friends.

I scan the parking lot for my client’s white pickup, which I soon see coming towards me.

I hop into the cab of the pickup. As we bump along the dirt roads, passing grubby factories, I feel a weird sense of pride.

This is where stuff is made. Jobs are created. And, wealth is generated.

It’s good to be back in the zone.

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