Arriving in Sierra Leone is particularly disorienting. The airport is divided from Freetown by the 'world's biggest natural harbour' and the options for getting across are water taxi, hovercraft or helicopter. Having been warned against the helicopter (there have been some recent deaths) I made for the water taxi - and was transported down a rough track in total darkness to the shore, where you are asked to don large life jackets - and then onto the boat - rather like one of the smaller pleasure boats that takes tourists along the Thames.
And off you go - in total darkness - bouncing along for half an hour - and realising you're lucky the weather is good today. Next morning in the light one gathers a whole new set of first impressions. I'm in Sierra Leone to meet an association of cocoa farmers - Kpeya Agricultural Enterprise (KAE) - first established in 1996 - during the civil war that devastated the country for 10 years. Working with Twin (the NGO behind Divine, Cafedirect and Liberation Nuts), and other NGOs, KAE aimed to create a cooperative of farmers, collectively managing their own business and exporting their own cocoa.
This is possible in Sierra Leone as the economy is entirely liberalised (unlike Ghana) - but KAE is up against many competitor traders - most of whom do not have the farmers' best interests at heart - so a big challenge to compete successfully and make it work. Twin's man in West Africa, Seth Gogoe and I set off early in the morning for Kenema - about 4-5 hours east of Freetown. The most striking thing about the journey - once we escape the gridlock in Freetown - is the excellent new roads - recently laid by Chinese contractors.
With little traffic and a beautiful clear day - it's a pleasure to just stare out of the window and take in the scenery - lush tropical greenery and small roadside towns and villages. I'm travelling to meet the team that runs KAE and some of the farmer members - and find out more about the challenges they face. It's a special trip for Divine.
Kuapa Kokoo - the cooperative in Ghana that owns 45% of Divine - has been sharing its experience and skills with KAE to help them develop their structure and processes, and also, importantly to show them how to improve significantly the quality of their cocoa. As a result KAE has been Fairtrade certified, and Kuapa Kokoo gave Divine the go ahead to buy KAE's first containers of Fairtrade cocoa.
The story of KAE is important for a number of reasons. It is yet another demonstration of how an ownership model of fairer trade allows more benefits for more farmers. Because Kuapa has other income streams from Divine (2% turnover for producer support and development, + 45% of distributible profits) they are in a position to help other farmers get established and sell their first Fairtrade cocoa to Divine.
It is also a salutory reminder that creating a working collective of farmers - in incredibly challenging conditions - takes a long time, and the absolute dedication and commitment of the farmers making it happen. It is the work of organisations like Twin, and the farmer-owned companies Twin has helped set up, on the ground in countries where farmers have historically been expoited and marginilised, that is at the heart of developing a fairer trade system. It is these pioneers who are demonstrating that trade systems can be fairer still - and continuing to challenge all those businesses who shirk from properly sharing their wealth with those who are fundamental to creating it.
My next blog will be about meeting KAE and its inspirational manager....