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A creative combination of radio programming, community work and distance learning is targeting 140,000 current and potential cocoa farmers in Eastern Sierra Leone.
The project aims to rebuild farmers' skills, increase the quality and amount of cocoa they produce and encourage more people to take up farming to support themselves and their families.
Before the country's civil war of 1991-2002, cocoa was a major export crop for Sierra Leone. But during the war many farms were destroyed, together with knowledge about cocoa production built up over many generations.
As David Musiime, who manages the livelihood project for BBC Media Action, says, "Many experienced cocoa farmers died during the decade of war and the generation that took over had no knowledge about growing cocoa."
By the time the conflict ended ten years ago, exports of cocoa from Sierra Leone had dropped by just over 60%.
Mariama Khai Fornah is a producer and trainer for BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone. She says that rebuilding the farmers’ skills is "crucial".
"After the war, people came back to their homes and they had nothing. They are now struggling to repair their lives. Many of the cocoa trees are 30 or 40 years old. Growing new trees and improving the variety will result in better harvests and mean a change of life for these farmers."
The power of radio
The three-year project is targeting current and potential cocoa farmers in three districts in Eastern Sierra Leone: Kenema, Kono and Kailahun.
Radio is key to reaching and training farmers in the remote parts of each district. Sierra Leone suffers from high illiteracy levels but approximately 80% of the country’s population have access to a radio.
A 15-minute radio drama called NgoiYaLende (Unity Boat) has been devised. Performed in the regional language of Mende, it was informed by a baseline survey and focus group discussions conducted at the start of the project.
The drama stars local actors and is broadcast on partner station, Eastern Radio, whose staff is also being trained and mentored by BBC Media Action.
"Some of the drama's characters follow the best practices in cocoa production and succeed," Mariama Khai Fornah explains. "Other characters don't and their cocoa harvest fails. Having local actors – who also improvise some of the drama - works so well because it helps people identify with their characters."
In addition to the drama, a phone-in radio programme makes the most of the high ownership of mobile phones in Sierra Leone with farmers ringing in with questions for cocoa experts. The discussion programme will also feature the farmers' voices in reports recorded in the field.
The drama and discussion programmes follow the cocoa production calendar. In planting season, for example, they discuss seed selection and how best to protect seed; in harvesting season, the focus shifts to the best practices to ensure the highest yield.
The programmes also discuss how farmers can stay healthy and how women can run cocoa farms.
Field schools for farmers have also been set up. These will consist of listener groups at demonstration farms who will hear teaching modules and practice techniques. After each group meets, facilitators will collect information on the effectiveness of the shows.
Because of the poor quality of their cocoa and the loss of market knowledge, many local farmers in eastern Sierra Leone have been caught up in a vicious cycle.
"Many of them sold their cocoa through a barter system after they had earlier secured loans or building materials from cocoa buyers or exporters," David Musiime says, "The cost of these loans meant that they had no bargaining power and had to sell their cocoa to the buyer at whatever price they were given."
The project will help farmers understand the current market prices of cocoa in the world markets and the value of their produce.
Cocoa farming is also becoming more important in Sierra Leone as mining - for surface diamonds, for example – is becoming a more difficult way to earn a living. Cocoa farming is seen as a main entry point for people hoping to become farmers to support themselves and their families.
As well as working with Eastern Radio, BBC Media Action is collaborating with many other partners and within existing structures on this project. They include: Njala University, Eastern Radio, SLARI and non-governmental organisations such as Welt Hunger Hilfe (WHH), cocoa working groups and advisory groups.
Through Njala University, the project is offering a distance learning programme which consists of 12 training modules about best practices in cocoa farming. The university is also training community facilitators to provide 1:1 training.
The farmers' participation is monitored throughout the course before a final practical examination. Once they pass the course, the farmer will earn an accreditation and certificate.
The three-year project started in October 2011 and is 80% funded by the European Union with co-funding of 20% from Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), ACDI/VOCA-Page Programme, German International Cooperation (GIZ) and BBC Media Action.
Growing new trees and improving the variety will result in better harvests and mean a change of life for these farmers