By Ange Aboa
SAN PEDRO, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Exporters are rejecting roughly half of cocoa port arrivals from top producer Ivory Coast on quality grounds, adding to problems that are already expected to result in a 180,000 tonne global supply deficit this year.
The rejections are because of high acid levels and small bean size, exporters and merchants said, adding that farmers are also struggling to dry beans because of recent heavy rains.
Bean size is determined by the number of beans per 100 grammes of cocoa, known as the bean count, with a higher figure reflecting smaller bean size.
Ivory Coast's marketing board, the Coffee and Cocoa Council (CCC), has fixed a ceiling of 120 beans per 100 g for beans destined for export during the April to September mid-crop. But exporters said that average bean counts are coming in between 125 and 160.
"We're getting cocoa, but 50 percent is rejected after analysis because the bean count is outside the norms and the free fatty acids (FFA) are above the accepted levels," said the purchasing director of a San Pedro-based exporter.
Smaller beans contain less cocoa butter, the ingredient that gives chocolate its texture, while FFAs erode the quality of that butter.
The decline in bean quality is blamed on a prolonged dry season and particularly harsh Harmattan desert winds during a critical period for mid-crop development.
The rains have now improved but it is likely to be weeks or even months before they have an impact on bean quality.
"For the moment we aren't seeing any improvement in quality. We hope the recent rains will change that ... But it might not be until July, August or September. It's hard to know," said Ali Lakiss, managing director of SAF Cacao, another San-Pedro based exporter.
While the recent rainfall has offered some relief to farmers, the regular downpours also have a downside.
Merchants charged with buying beans directly from farmers and transporting them to exporters at the ports complained that the rains have made it difficult for planters to dry and ferment their beans.
"It takes longer (to prepare the beans) and even then the quality is only average. Not only are the beans small, but now they are also mouldy and slated," said Badara Kante, a buyer based in the town of Meagui.
The rains have also damaged the dirt tracks linking many plantations to the main roads in Ivory Coast's western cocoa-growing heartland, increasing the transport times from bush to port, bringing further deterioration in bean quality.
"When we buy from the farmers, the quality is already bad ... It's really hard to find good cocoa right now. This year it's really complicated," said Ibrahim Coulibaly, a buyer based in the town of Soubre.
(Editing by Joe Bavier and David Goodman)