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NGIEHUM, Sierra Leone — No one in this village wanted to be a cocoa farmer 15 years ago. The labor was hard, the crop was often plagued by disease and sold for lower than market prices. And most farmers ended up in debt because of loans taken out to pay seasonal workers.
“We didn’t go near the plantation,” said Sallieu Mondeh, a cocoa farmer in the village. “We didn’t even want our children to be called farmers.”
But growing cocoa has become much more popular in Sierra Leone as a result of a combination of events that is strengthening the country's hand in the world cocoa market.
Sierra Leone is now poised to be a key supplier of organic cocoa to the international market.
“Now we’re realizing profits,” said Aiah Njawa, standing among his eight-acre cocoa farm in Ngiehum, Kono, a district in eastern Sierra Leone. The farm was left to him by his father, but eventually became a costly burden.
Cocoa crops like those in Ngiehum village are now benefitting — ironically — because the trees were neglected during the 11-year civil war and its aftermath. The lands have been untouched by pesticides and other chemicals for more than a decade, making them ripe for organic cocoa.
“It’s been 15 years since anybody has sprayed any kind of chemicals on cocoa because of a lack of access and little affordability,” said Tom Roberts, agriculture productivity specialist for World Vision, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that is working to maximize farmer production and profits through farmer field schools.
Despite a slump in cocoa demand because of the global economic crisis, a premium still exists for organic cocoa, he said. West Africa produces an estimated 70 percent of the world’s cocoa. Total cocoa produced worldwide during the 2008-2009 growing season was 3.6 million tons, according to the International Cocoa Association. Cote d’Ivoire is at the top, producing 1.2 million tons of cocoa in that period. Ghana is the second largest producer at 662,000 for the same season, according to the International Cocoa Association.
Sierra Leone's cocoa production in 2009 is estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 tons. Exact figures of Sierra Leone’s cocoa production and exports are hard to gather because it lacks a central body keeping tabs on the sector here.
Sierra Leone exported 26,000 tons of cocoa in the years before its civil war began in 1991, according to Franz Moestl, program manager for Welthungerhilfe, a German NGO focused on food security and nature conservation efforts here.
“When you invest in this sector you will easily double or even triple those figures,” Moestl said.
Worldwide demand for cocoa was down 7 percent in 2009, according to the International Cocoa Organization in London. A production shortage is still predicted for this year.
“We have supply issues concerns,” said Laurent Pipitone, senior statistician for the International Cocoa Organization. “Now the price of cocoa has become a problem.”
Prices for regular cocoa are at a 30-year high, as drought and disease lower exports from other countries. The rising price of cocoa is leading chocolate manufacturers to lower the pure cocoa content in products like chocolate bars, Pipitone said.
Sierra Leone is low on the worldwide cocoa supply list due to its past strife and the bad reputation it earned for producing and selling poor quality cocoa. Although it’s doubtful the country can make up the production gap in other nations, a renewed interest in its cocoa sector from the public and private sectors here comes at an opportune time.
“All they need to do is plant,” said Medgar Brown, managing director of Balmed Holdings Ltd., a buyer and seller of cocoa and coffee in Sierra Leone. "If there was a drive to plant more they could get up to a pretty good supply.”
Brown also formed the Millennium Cocoa Growers Cooperative, a group of farmers in the Kono district who grow coffee and cocoa. There are 3,000 farmers in the cooperative, but not all are active members. Brown said 400 of those farmers have received organic certification for their cocoa trees.
Balmed purchased nearly 300 tons of cocoa last season, most coming from the cooperative. Brown hopes to reach 1,000 tons this year.
In the past, farmers like Mondeh and Njawa — who belong to the Millennium cooperative in Ngiehun — said they didn’t know market prices for cocoa, so they were often duped into selling at prices lower than average, killing their chance of earning a profit.
“The other dealers would just come, they wouldn’t announce their prices,” said Njawa, who is also authorized to buy cocoa from non-members on behalf of the cooperative.
But the real value for groups like Brown’s and Roberts’ is the education they’re providing to farmers through farmer field schools on how to maintain and further cultivate their crops.
“There is a vast difference between before Millennium came and after. I didn’t know what shade management or black pod disease were,” said Vandi Lansana, a cocoa farmer in Kangamra town in Kono. “Now I’m getting an improvement in yields.”
Back in Ngiehun, Njawa and his fellow farmers say the knowledge they’ve gained makes them proud to be cocoa farmers again. Njawa made a $1,200 profit last season by selling his cocoa beans. He has a motorbike and is building a house. He’s also training his son to take over the farm someday using the techniques gained from the farmer field schools.
“I said, ‘Look, I got all this money after all these expenditures, this is what I’ve realized from the farm, so I’m telling you my secrets,’” Njawa said. “This will give you zeal to take over when I die.”