It is understandable that agriculture plays such an important role in Sierra Leone's economy given that it employs around two-thirds of the country's labour force. The issue is that cocoa production still plays a tiny fraction in the country's overall agricultural production. The local Ministry of Trade and Industry estimate that there are only 42,000 hectares of land dedicated, to some degree, in the production of cocoa. Compare that to around 800,000 in Ghana which produces around 18% or so of the world's cocoa supply.
Cocoa growing is focused primarily on the Kenema and Kailahun districts of the Eastern Province which borders on Liberia. The issue is that this 'western' part of the 'cocoa belt' is drier than can be found in either Ivory Coast or Ghana and hence has less suitable land to grow the crop. Despite this, it has been stated that it was here that cocoa was first brought to West Africa via Dublin, of all places, from Trinidad in around 1902 and that some of the direct ancestors of these plants remain on the island of Sherbro just off the Sierra Leone mainland.
In the book The Genetic Diversity of Cacao and Its Utilization, B.G.D Bartley states that 'Ceylon Red', 'Nicaraguan Criollo', 'Forastero' were brought over as plant stock whilst 1000 seeds of unknown DNA were also introduced to Sierra Leone. While there is also a possibility that cacao from Sao Tome and Fernando Po also found their way to Sierra Leone.
As with much of African cocoa production, it is often generated by smallholders which may have 'plots' of around 0.4 to 1.2 hectares - given that the size of Trafalgar Square is about 1 hectare, and you can't pack in cocoa trees - unless they're grown on an industrial scale, this isn't a great deal of land to work with and produce a living. The issue of poverty within the cocoa-growing community isn't restricted to Sierra Leone or West Africa; it is a worldwide phenomenon. When you also add in the severe problem tragedy of child slavery then ethically trading with the country is crucial and we need to encourage makers to trade directly with growers and do their bit to ensure that child (any form of) slavery isn't used.
You cannot mention the Sierra Leone chocolate industry without including this fantastic documentary. Without sounding patronising, hopefully, it will help you make better chocolate buying decisions.
In recent years there has been a big push in Sierra Leone to increase production, following on from the demise of the industry in the civil war of 1991-2002 as chronicled by Bloomberg and the BBC. Divine is also bringing attention to the opportunity of returning Sierra Leone to the production heights they used to enjoy and fighting to bring ethical chocolate production to the region, and even the EU has provided financial assistance. But there is still little origin chocolate produced from local chocolate. You have Duffy with his chilli bar and his direct trade ethos (I'm not sure if this bar is). There's Willie's with his Ginger Lime offering and that's about it.
The problem is, West African cacao is still dominated by the likes of Kraft, Mars, Nestle, Ferrero, Hershey and Lindt because of the general disease resistance of much of the cacao in the region and opportunity for greater yields from cocoa growers who are keen to increase production.
The problem seems to be natural. There is a very real risk that an El Niño weather event could affect the area as documented by the International Trade Centre Guide to Cocoa Trade Practices (and can even be seen in 2015 with Ivory Coast about 100,000 tonnes short of 2014 production), or the disease on the scale of the 2014 Ebola outbreak or even terrorism. But this gives us even more reason to try and get more cocoa from Sierra Leone into the hands of craft chocolate makers to see what they can do with it. Hopefully, we can then be able to help create a more stable economic and social environment in the country and rid it of child slavery.