KENEMA, Sierra Leone (AFP) – Cocoa farmer Sam Turner grips tight as his bike wobbles along the country track in Ebola-hit eastern Sierra Leone, groaning under the weight of beans harvested a month late.
The arable district of Kenema – at the centre of the outbreak of the deadly epidemic in May – has been under quarantine for three months and its once-abundant, verdant landscape is going to seed.
To make matters worse, the rainy season has continued far longer than usual, and Turner forlornly points to his still green but already pitted pods.
“The harvest is late and it’s not going to be good. We didn’t start early enough. The rain has destroyed a lot,” he says back on the plantation.
Turner has roped in the whole family to work and he deals out the odd judicious clip around the ear as his children, aged eight and ten, bicker and jostle for pickings in the branches.
The Turners are lucky to have escaped an Ebola epidemic which raged through Kenema and neighbouring Kailahun at the height of summer before spreading west, leaving in its wake around 1,200 deaths.
The two eastern districts are experiencing a slowdown in the spread, but Turner and his family, like all farmers in the area, are still playing for high stakes.
“Prices are falling, to 4,000 leones (US$0.92) per pound (0.45 kilogrammes). Buyers no longer come. Ebola is really setting us back,” he sighs.
Ebola, an aggressive tropical pathogen causing a fever which can lead to unstoppable internal and external bleeding, spreads fear as quickly as pestilence.
Farmers who were lucky enough to escape the contagion have downed tools in their droves.
According to an initial evaluation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 40 per cent of farm hands in Kenema and Kailahun have abandoned their posts or died.
In the most productive agricultural areas, 90 per cent of plots have been unattended during the epidemic.
Amid the eastern region’s crocodile-infested swampland and dense forests of African teak and khaya trees, thousands of acres of savannah lie neglected and fallow, the grass uncut for months.
Kenema’s capital, a bustling export hub of the same name, attracts traders from across the country and beyond who bargain with small farmers and large plantation holders alike.
In October and November they come for cocoa, while the coffee season starts in February.
Almost a decade after a ruinous 11-year civil war shattered industry and agriculture, Sierra Leone’s chemical-free soil remains one of its principal assets.
The European Union plays up the “organic” certification of its plantations, and its cocoa and coffee beans are a sought-after commodity.
The country is working gradually to return to pre-war levels of cocoa production and is just 5,000 off the target of 25,000 tonnes per year.
But it remains a small player compared with neighbouring Ivory Coast, which produces 1.75 million tonnes.
A number of exporters – Tropical Farms, Randlyn Holdings, the Capitol Trading Company and others – line the main road through Kenema city.
All day motorcycles, taxis and vans drive up and unload bags of beans in warehouses monitored by armed men.
“Last year at the same time, we were still unloading at midnight,” says Bassam Dayoub, head of Dayoub Trading.
“Today, I do about 300 bags of 65 kg a day, compared to about 2,000 bags last year. We don’t have enough product.”
Dayoub says that even if there were enough produce to ship out, transportation is a major issue.
Every day at 5pm, army and police checkpoints lock down the district, and no one can get in or out until 9am.
“Because of Ebola, the buyers no longer come. People are afraid to travel because of all the roadblocks. They have to spend the night on the road,” Dayoub says.
The journey from Kenema to Freetown, where hauliers’ goods are shipped to Turkey and the Netherlands, can take two days now, whereas it took just a few hours before Ebola. He says prices are rising.
“Suddenly, the prices are rising because volumes are declining,” says Dayoub, adding that he is buying cocoa from farmers at US$2.50 a kilo, a rise of 25 per cent in a few months.
At Capitol Trading, Hassan Hashim, the boss, turns over 600 bags a day but he, too, expects to export less – “70 per cent of last year’s volume: 1,500 tonnes, maximum”, he predicts.
The price of cocoa on global commodity markets shot up to 3.5-year highs in September on fears that Ebola’s spread would disrupt the harvest in top exporters Ivory Coast and Ghana, but has since pulled back as speculators pulled out of the market.