By Naoko Ishibashi, IFRC
“When you push it and squeeze it, then if it cracks, it means the cocoa beans are dried well.”
Dominic Moiwo scoops up a handful of cocoa beans from the heap of beautifully browned beans which have been spread out to dry in the sun in front of his store in eastern Sierra Leone. With a little imagination, one can see how these fragrant beans can be processed into delicious sweet chocolate.
But for the 42-year-old cocoa purchasing agent, his story is bitter sweet. He was in the process of expanding his business in early 2014 and had just secured a loan from an agricultural bank when Ebola surfaced in Kailahun district; the epicentre of the outbreak in Sierra Leone and the location of Moiwo’s business.
“Before Ebola came, I had a lot of customers,” says Moiwo. “But as Ebola killed most of them, I lost most of the money which I created from the company. I’m thinking it will take me five years for my business to fully recover from the effects of Ebola.”
In the middle of taking phone calls from potential buyers, Moiwo describes the challenges of doing business during the outbreak.
“I usually purchase 150 to 300 tonnes of cocoa in a normal year, but during Ebola, I could only purchase 25 tonnes. My boss, who is exporting the cocoa to Europe, was afraid to give me money as there was a high possibility of losing it. If either the customers or I died due to Ebola, he would not get that money returned,” explains Moiwo.
There was also the issue of quarantines being put in place by the government which banned non-essential travel between districts. It meant any cocoa purchased by Moiwo would most likely not be transported for processing. “The quarantines made it difficult to move out the cocoa. The beans would be sitting here for one month. A lot of Ebola patients were transported by ambulances to Kailahun and they passed by the road in front of my store. Every time I heard the sound of an ambulance, I would wrap up the beans and run inside the store with them. Sometimes the patients would spit out the window and I was so afraid of how my product would be affected.”
It has now been one year since Ebola cases were reported in Kailahun district. Quarantines have been lifted and “business is moving, but not as much.” Due to decreased yields and increased competition, Moiwo expects to purchase 120 tonnes of cocoa beans for export this year, better than during the outbreak, but still lower than normal years.
“Ebola is the worst enemy I have ever had. It is worse than the war we experienced here. During the war, we crossed to neighbouring countries to flee. We were accepted. But Ebola closed everything. We couldn’t go anywhere and had no choice but to be ready to die.”