As Mary Sia Kombo walks through the trees and shrubs of her family’s cocoa farm, images of her father flood her memory.
“He used to carry me to the farm with him,” recalls 23-year-old Kombo. “It was a special time spent with my father. I learned a lot.”
Though her father died in 2007, she remembers how he encouraged her to pursue farming – and to work hard at it.
“He showed me many techniques of farming. I’m always missing him,” she says.
However, the farm her father owned could not be maintained after the devastation of the country’s 11-year civil war. When the war ended in 2002, he father tried to revitalise the farm, but it was difficult. After his death, there was still a lot of work to be done.
Despite agriculture accounting for almost half of the country’s gross domestic product, farms neglected owing to the war are common.
A project initiated by the German government is hoping to revive the cocoa industry by offering a programme known as the Integrated Farmers Training to youth like Kombo, who has been involved with the programme since its launch in February 2014.
The project is implemented by the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ) with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Currently, about 5,000 young people from the eastern districts of Kailahun and Kono are learning about the cocoa farm trade, many of them owning the plantations upon which they learn to farm.
“So many [farmers] died, and younger generations were not able to take care of plantations. The knowledge was lost and interest was not there,” says Ralf Zimmermann, the team leader of the cocoa component of the programme.
“And now they don’t have the resources. Many of these plantations are overgrown, neglected. It isn’t enough to make a living,” Zimmerman says
Zimmermann notes that Sierra Leone has never been a major exporter of cocoa.
“[For the programme promoting employment], cocoa as a high-demand cash crop is an ideal vehicle to create self-employment in the rural areas. All the plantations are already in place – they just have to be rehabilitated and rejuvenated,” he says, adding that the climate and soil are ideal for cocoa farming.
With the right training and enough interest from younger farmers, he believes the programme could be a success. “This is where we come in.”
Through the initiative, GIZ helps these farmers to finance a small portion of their own plantations which, due to years of neglect and damage, essentially must be restored from scratch. GIZ provides the farmers with resources such as tools and equipment, to revive and then maintain the land.
Once they start generating an income, the farmers can fully take over management of the farm. About 4,500 hectares of land is being rehabilitated under the programme.
Taught by local instructors who are led by a German training expert, the programme is divided into eight modules, which include skills such as plant cropping, plant nutrition and replanting seeds. There is also a business training component so that trainees can develop trade skills and sell directly to buyers.
Zimmermann adds that the project focuses on helping youth because of the high unemployment rates in Sierra Leone – another hard-hitting impact of the civil war. The youth population, aged 15-35, comprises a third of the population of the country, of whom about 70 percent are underemployed or unemployed.
Umaru Jusu is just one of the thousands of youth who fought in the civil war. He’s now in his 30s and says the experience was traumatising.
Members of the rebel group, Revolutionary United Front or RUF, killed his parents and siblings after his father could not give them money. Jusu was captured and forced to join the group.
When the war was over, he was at a loss with nothing to do. After living on the streets for years, selling bread to make ends meet, Jusu happened upon a childhood friend who advised him to learn about cocoa farming. He took that advice and started working on his friend’s farm. When he heard about the training from GIZ, Jusu was eager to join.
His late father also had some land, which he is now utilising for his own cocoa farming.
“I didn’t know how to use money; I didn’t know about cash books or sales credit. They taught us all about financial services. I know what I sell, buy and profit from. Now I know how to do business,” says Jusu with a grin. “My big goal is to be one of the richest men in Kailahun.”
There was an economic setback in 2015 when the Ebola crisis hit Sierra Leone. Kailahun was one of the first places where the virus took hold and it became a hot-spot for the epidemic.
The training programme was forced to a halt for several months. However, according to the young farmers who spoke with Al Jazeera, they did not neglect their farms during this time. The farmers were still able to get to their land, but sales exports suffered.
“[Middlemen and importers] didn’t buy cocoa beans from us. They were worried about the Ebola and wouldn’t touch the beans,” says Jusu.
What compounded the problem were the restrictions on the movement of the young farmers. “We couldn’t move around to sell. There were restrictions with no movement out of our town to keep the virus from spreading.”
The country was declared Ebola-free this March.
Even though the farmer training programme was new, young farmers say they have still made around $800 and $1,000 per year, which is a high income for a country where most of the population has been living on less than $1 a day.
According to the Produce Monitoring Board, almost 16,000 tonnes were exported in 2011-2012, but figures dropped to 12,642 tonnes in 2014-2015.
However, demand for cocoa is still high, according to Zimmermann. Most exports head to the United States and Holland, which also distribute the beans further into Europe.
The training could be coming at a very good time, according to some analysts, as a lack of cocoa could be imminent.
It is speculated that climate change may be a cause for this impending extinction. “It’s not clear at the moment how the situation will be in West Africa. For example, if there’s more rain, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for cocoa,” says Zimmermann.
“There are studies that say increased drier, warmer temperatures could happen in parts of West Africa, more so in Ivory Coast and Ghana [which are top exporters of cocoa],” he says.
“On one hand, this could mean an opportunity for Sierra Leone to step up its game in the cocoa world and perhaps sell even more. But on the other hand, if [this area is] affected too, it could mean that cocoa will be harder to produce.”
As for Mary Sia Kombo, she still has high dreams of what she will be able to achieve in the cocoa industry. She plans on continuing to learn more about the trade.
It is something, she is confident, that would have made her father proud.