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August 16, 2011

Sierra Leone cocoa farmers in post-war recovery

For the first time since the start of a civil war two decades ago, Sierra Leone's cocoa farmers have earned a profit, marking a revival of what was once the country's biggest agricultural export.

The country's Kayeigoma cocoa export company announced a profit of 200 million Leones (32,000 euros, $50,000) for the fiscal year ended in July 2011, a small but significant boost for the industry which is trying to rebuild after the brutal decade-long conflict ended in 2002.

"The board of directors of the company gave a share of profit to each and every farmer based on cocoa supplied to the company," accountant Usif Rahman Sesay said.

The civil war destroyed roads and infrastructure, with plantations in terrible condition and farming skills scarce but the World Bank in 2006 urged Sierra Leone to focus on cocoa as a sector with promising growth potential.

West Africa supplies 70% of the world's cocoa, with nearby Ivory Coast and Ghana the top two cocoa producers.

Agriculture Minister Sam Sesay called the profit the best thing to have happened to the cocoa industry in two decades.

"In the past, we had the repercussions of our products being sent back and the country blacklisted for exporting poor quality commodities," Sesay said. "Now we are making a breakthrough in improving ... the quality of our exports."

To try to compete with large companies, farmers in the eastern districts of Kaliahun, Kenema and Kono formed three cooperatives which were each given a working capital of 200 million Leones from the World Bank's Rural Private Sector Development Programme.

"Although co-op members have yet to meet their target export volume of 3,000 metric tons of cocoa per harvest season in 2011, up from 1,000 in 2010, the sense of ownership has boosted pride among the farmers," the World Bank says on its website.

"We've been able to succeed because of our common desire to be united for a common purpose," said Simon Bendu, a farmer and senior member of Kayeigoma, which is 70% owned by the three co-operatives.

He said that in the past farmers would swap their cocoa for rice and other commodities, and the cocoa would then be taken across the border by traders from neighbouring countries such as Liberia.

"Now all that is over. There is a high degree of transparency and we know the daily cost of a pound of cocoa and we are present at the weighing process."

One of the most important steps has been training farmers to improve the quality under a training programme by Kpeya Agriculture Enterprise.

"In the quest for quick cash in the past, many farmers ignored the need for quality cocoa beans and shipped out sub-standard produce which led to the country being blacklisted and the produce dumped. Now many farmers are trained to get the best product ... The produce is closely examined in their presence and the faults brought to their notice in their presence. So nobody feels cheated," said Kpeya project officer Aiah Konneh.

With the land having been unused for so long, the country is also benefiting by marketing organic and Fairtrade cocoa.

"Another breakthrough is the export of organic cocoa for which we did not use agricultural agro-chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides and yet we had high yields as well as good qualities that are fetching high premium," Agriculture Minister Sesay said.

Retail trader Samuel Williams (35) said he looks forward to the day when "companies here would make chocolate as is done in Ghana at cheap prices ... as we are now purchasing imported chocolates."

Cocoa prices have been volatile in 2011, reaching a 30-year high in February as post-election violence led to a ban on cocoa exports in Ivory Coast and remaining high after exports resumed in April.


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