Sierra Leone is a "relative unknown" in craft chocolate circles, according to Kristy Leissle, a cocoa marketer for Twin Trading.
But the alternative trading company has been working to connect smallholder farmers in the West African nation to international craft chocolate firms under its three-year ‘Gola Rainforest Cocoa project’.
Two producer organizations of more than 1,000 smallholder farmers based in the Gola Rainforest National Park near Kenema recently shipped their first container to US craft chocolate company Dandelion Chocolate.
The farmers are now gearing up to export a second container to another specialty chocolate buyer.
"We're looking to double exports very shortly,” said Leissle at the recent Chocoa 2018 conference in Amsterdam.
"But it's not sustainable for a producer organization to export just one container a year. No one will make a living. We hope to scale up to 50 eventually."
Restoring knowledge after civil conflict & Ebola
Sierra Leone was embroiled in a 10-year plus civil conflict from 1991 to 2002, and was the epicenter of the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak that left more than 11,000 dead across West Africa.
Barry Callebaut suspended Biolands operations in the country after quarantined areas during the Ebola outbreak made transport challenging. The company told this site it has ended the operation.
"A lot of the knowledge [in cocoa] was lost during the prolonged civil conflict and then by the Ebola crisis,” said Leissle.
The Twin project, which began in 2015 and is now in its final year, has sought to restore knowledge.
The project has helped established village collection services and trained farmers on post-harvest fermentation and drying to improve quality.
Around 1,100 farmers in two farmer groups, 508 in Gaura and 614 in Tunkoya, are part of the project.
Farmer membership is now growing and expanding to the nearby chiefdoms of Tonkia and Koya, as well as Malema, with membership expected to reach 2,000 members by the end of 2018.
Twin expects production capacity, currently at 12.5 metric tons (MT) annually, will increase to 62.5 MT by the end of this year. The cocoa is Forastero (Amelonado and Upper Amazon) and no artificial fertilizers or pesticides are used in production.
Sierra Leone cocoa production
Cocoa production in Sierra Leone is steadily rising.
Annual volumes are estimated to hit 20,000 MT for the current cocoa season (October 2017–September 2018), according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO).
The ICCO told us cocoa quality improved in Sierra Leone during Ebola as restrictions on movement of people meant growers spent more time improving their farms.
- 2012/13 – 10,700 MT
- 2016/17 – 18,000 MT
Volumes are not certified, but Twin claims it has internal control systems aligned with certification standards.
"[The country] is not known for it's quality cocoa, so we're really moving against the tide of what Sierra Leone can do,” said Leissle.
According to the cocoa marketer, chocolate with single origin Sierra Leonean cocoa has a fudgy, spicy profile.
Farmers mainly ferment beans at farm level.
"When you sell it to the specialty sector, there's a lot of nervousness around that because you're dealing with potential variability in the product,” said Leissle.
However, Twin began piloting centralized processing at village level last year.
Twin manages the Gola Rainforest Cocoa project in collaboration with the Gola Rainforest National Park, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Jula Consultancy. British charity Comic Relief provides financial backing.