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Cocoa, arm wrestling and opportunity

Liberia, November 12, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Annie Garfree, mother of six children, is participating in a Mercy Corps cocoa farming program so she can earn more money and provide for her family. Photo: Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps

Annie Garfree has six children, three daughters and three sons. Only her boys are currently in school. But she's eager to make sure all of them get an education.

Annie is a farmer who's learning new methods of planting, growing and harvesting so she can earn more money and provide for her family. She's one of 25 farmers participating in a Mercy Corps program on a cocoa farm that was started by our Phoenix Fund. More than half of the farmers in this program, and in Liberia in general, are women. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called agriculture the main engine of Liberia's economic development. Mercy Corps is helping Annie and other Liberian women farmers meet their country's own goals by becoming more successful farmers.

I sat with Annie under a tree in the cocoa nursery, talking about her life and cocoa farming. First, she had to rehabilitate the land — clearing the dense undergrowth called "brushing" here in Liberia — with a machete. Then she had to dig out the roots. It's grueling labor, and Annie is tiny, about five feet tall and as lean as a sapling. But she's strong.

I hold up my arm next to hers and challenge her to a mock arm-wrestle, and we both burst out laughing. Before even starting, it's clear who the winner would be.

Annie just got her first batch of cocoa seedlings. She carried the plants to her farm, about a half-hour walk from the Mercy Corps nursery. There, she's learning planting techniques like how to plant banana trees between the rows of cocoa seedlings. The bananas provide necessary protection from the sun while the cocoa plants are getting established, as well as a much-needed cash crop for farmers like Annie until the cocoa trees begin bearing fruit.

"For a long time," says Annie, "I had no hope. Now, with the seedlings from Mercy Corps, and the training I'm getting, I'll be able to pay tuition to send my children to school."