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August 25th, 2015
After waiting almost a year, 3,000 cocoa farmers from the Kailahun and Kona districts of Sierra Leone are finally receiving their premium payments for their sustainable UTZ certified cocoa. The delay was due to problems associated with the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

When the Ebola outbreak tore across Western Africa in 2014, Sierra Leone was located at its epicenter. One underreported consequence of the outbreak was its effect on Sierra Leone's cocoa farmers including significant delays in moving product out of the country, getting certified as sustainable cocoa producers, and getting paid the premiums associated with their certification.

Transmar spoke with Abass Khazem of Ali Baz Trading, who works with farmers in Kailahun and Kona districts, about the challenges posed by the outbreak and how he and the farmers overcame them.

Transmar: How did the EBOLA outbreak of 2014 impact the certification process for the farmers you work with in Sierra Leone?
Abass Khazem: The EBOLA posed a tremendous challenge to the Alibaz certification process including:

- Training of the registered farmers was completed under high risk as restriction preventing people from gathering together were highly enforced.

- Movement restrictions could not let staff penetrate the communities as scheduled. Instances where staff were to sleep in communities in order to achieve some key meetings and other relevant activities did not work as a result of the ban imposed which prevented people from passing the night in non- residing communities.

- The certification body that was contracted to carry out the external audit and were fully paid for this exercise failed to fly into the country for the fear of the disease.

- Cash movement to the communities was also a challenge since banking operations in most of the operational communities were scaled down and some were even put on hold. This posed the challenge of moving huge amounts of money for buying of provisional UTZ cocoa from registered farmers.

- The restrictions on commercial bike movements after 7:00pm posed lots of challenges for Alibaz Field Instructors as the law enforcement officers would take advantage of the situation to harass private and government owned motor bikes. In a few occasion, motor bikes of Field Inspectors bikes including government officials were arrested and detained unlawfully.

T: How did you personally and the farmers manage to get through such hardship without giving up?
AK: The situation was one that required perseverance. The few breathing spaces that were given to staff were used to penetrate the communities and give the farmers hope that all will be over soon and that they should not give up. Sensitization automatically became part of our agenda as we moved at a slow pace with our operations.

T: What role did Solomon S. Leigh play, and how has he been an asset?
AK: Solomon is the IMS manager. He is also performing the role of Operations manager for the business. He has been quite influential in ensuring that the field operation continues irrespective of the numerous challenges posed by the law enforcement officials. He has kept in constant communication with our local and international contacts in order to achieve our plans particularly with audit and certification process. He is also managing the buying operations in the region.

T: What role, if any, did Transmar play?
AK: Transmar stood by Alibaz during these difficult times. Mary Johnson would always promptly respond to all our correspondences and communicate to the appropriate channels all issues of concern. The certification body delayed refunding funds that we paid to them for performing the external audit which they failed to turn up for. Mary Johnson was very supportive in communicating with UTZ on this matter and I am sure the certification body finally refunded the money as a result of all these pressures that were mounted on them.

T: What other types of services/tools/training do you provide the farmers?
AK: Alibaz partnered with two international Non-Governmental Organizations namely; Welthunger Hilfe (WHH) and GIZ/EPP (Youth Employment Program) with the implementation of total rehabilitation of cocoa farms (Under brushing, Pruning, Shade management & Gap filling). Rehabilitation tools such as pruning saws, cutlasses, axes, secateurs, poly bags etc. were supplied to farmers to enable them appropriately carry out these activities. Training of the farmers on good agricultural practices and other related topics were among the services provided to these farmers.

T: What hopes do you have for the future of your program and what struggles do you foresee?
AK: I am absolutely optimistic that following the support provided to the farmers as outline above, there is a greater chance for them to improve on their farming practices, increase their farm sizes, increase their yield and quality of their products and subsequently increase their incomes. This will ultimately lead to improving their standards of living. Alibaz will equally have the opportunity to buy more quality produce from these communities to sell to our international buyers, earn more income including more premiums to support community development efforts. The country will then collect more taxes which will be a good contribution to national development.

In August of 2015, Alibaz Trading held premium ceremonies attended by farmers from throughout the Kailahun and Kona districts.