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Sierra Leone to be leader in organic cocoa

After years of civil war, Sierra Leone re-enters world cocoa trade.

Sierra Leone cocoa beans
Organic cocoa beans drying at a farm in the Millennium Cocoa Growers cooperative in Ngiehum village in Sierra Leone. (Kimberly S. Johnson/GlobalPost)

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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.