The fruit of our labours

Monday, 01 Mar 2004

By Anthony Pile, Managing Director, Blue Skies

Blue Skies is the name we gave to our company because it implied unlimited imagination and we felt that if we were to succeed in Africa then our capacity for finding solutions should be limitless.

I was asked to write an article explaining how Blue Skies had benefited from the opportunities in Africa, but actually I would like to approach this on a less partisan basis and argue that Blue Skies is both African and European - and that everyone gains. In fact, I would go further and say that Europe and Africa are natural bedfellows since each needs the other. Indeed, if Blue Skies has been successful, it is simply because our continents work well together.

After almost six years Blue Skies has a factory in Egypt and another in Ghana. A third is being built in South Africa and will be commissioned shortly. We supply freshly harvested cut fruit in small plastic packs to the retailers of Europe. We fly 70 tonnes of consumer packs to our customers every week. We employ a total of 800 people in Africa and 15 in Europe.

In Ghana, where the operation first started in February 1998, and where the GDP is $5.5 billion (compare this with Sainsbury's annual turnover of $26 billion), Blue Skies sales are already equivalent to between half and one per cent of Ghana’s exports. This is despite strong exports of gold, cocoa, timber and diamonds. 25% of Ghana’s exported pineapples goes through the Blue Skies factory.

In Blue Skies we pay far more than lip service to the environment and ethics. We pay our 200 farmers seven days after delivery, we lend them money interest-free to put up buildings that meet "Good Agricultural Practice" (this European standard is now world recognised and known as EurepGap) and we prefer to use smallholders who can spread the benefit of our trade more equitably within the community. We enjoy a very close relationship with the farming community and it pays 1000 fold more dividends than a formal contract. Of course, there is a specification, a price and volume agreed in a programme over a year, but we do not have any document that could lead to litigation and ill-feeling.

Blue Skies was the first company in the world to achieve EurepGap for a group of farmers. This meant investment of time and cash by the company into smallholders’ farms who could never have achieved this accreditation on their own. Ghana has had a poor reputation for export quality pineapples and mangoes since both fruits were often released into Europe by unregulated exporters who gave priority to quantity over quality. Two weeks ago a farmer told me that he went into Sainsbury's and offered his mango and pineapple and started by apologising to the buyer for his country’s product. He was stopped in full flow and told that since Blue Skies’ arrival, Ghana is recognised by that retailer, and now by others, as a quality supplier.

In Ghana, Blue Skies employs 50 people with tertiary education, 30 disabled people and 60% of the management team there is female. The Operations Manager and Deputy General Manager is a 29 year old Ghanaian woman with a degree in food science who is currently released to complete a MBA course as she is prepared for a step up to the top job.

Blue Skies has a policy of trust. We do not have clocking-in machines, for example. Staff simply turn up in time and if they let their department down by being late then their colleagues let them know about it! There are as few offices as we can get away with and we all write, meet, teach, discuss, eat and even dance in the summer huts. These are large, round, thatched, open-sided buildings that permit transparency because everyone can see what is going on.

We live with AIDS in Africa. And Ghana has its fair share of the terrible disease. We do not screen people for HIV but when symptoms develop or when following one of our monthly voluntary meetings with the staff (we are asked by individuals for checks), we get an idea of whether we are gaining ground on this awful enemy. Blue Skies is delighted that we have not had a new known case of HIV/AIDS for two years and because we have injected everyone against Hepatitis B, no one will die again in Blue Skies from this sexually transmitted scourge. Malaria is the biggest killer in Ghana and we had 70 cases at any one time until we introduced impregnated mosquito nets for all and stepped up the education programme about how to keep the mosquito at bay.

Blue Skies supplies 10 retailers in six different European countries. The relationship with these customers is carefully developed on a friendly and professional basis. Visits to the Blue Skies sites never fail to enhance the partnership. Both European and African alike enjoy the encounters which are relaxed but objective. This contrasts sharply with the hurried three-hour audits which occur in Britain.

Slowly but surely we are helping develop more trade for Ghana and Egypt. One of our retail customers deliberately encourages the development of business - a form of positive discrimination to ensure that Africa gains from business with Europe.

Blue Skies has also managed to get noticed by achieving firsts and unusual feats. Marks & Spencer’s recently submitted a Blue Skies product for a world innovation award. We recognise the immense benefit for Ghana of putting the M&S heavyweight brand and reputation behind a product produced in this country to a world-beating high standard. When M&S and Blue Skies collected their award, the press acknowledged the hugely successful partnership between the two continents.

Africa and Europe need each other. Africa needs the market and Europe needs the produce. As we have shown, the money which comes from the sale of fruit plays a dramatic role in stimulating local economies. The healthy food also brings a better diet opportunity to the European who is beginning to listen to the public messages about the importance of fruit and vegetables in the daily intake.

In the States a great deal of work has been done to demonstrate the link between anger control and fruit, between pineapple and a healthy pregnancy, between the development of intelligence and fruit. Recently, the control of diseases like cancer has been attributed to this food. The Pope’s successful fight against Parkinson’s disease has been credited to papaya.

Blue Skies deals with fruit, but there are many other raw materials and services in Africa to which local skills can be added to create products of value to our two continents. The pharmaceutical, drinks, petrochemical, mineral, construction, I.T, and many other industries can all testify to this. So the question which should trouble our leaders is "how?". How do we stimulate the activity between our continents when there is already so much need on both sides?

African governments offer various packages and Blue Skies acknowledges the pivotal role played by the Ghanaian and Egyptian governments when they offered a free zone facility. This is a far-sighted and successful cocktail of incentives allowing you to get a fledgling business of the ground and flying! However it does need a special team to make this all happen. We would like to suggest that governments consider focusing more on finding such people, for only the right management team can actually make it happen.

Ministers do not need a pen sketch of the type of people needed for such a task. Clearly they have to have all the right skills, but they must have a sense of adventure, tolerance, buckets of determination and a keen sense of humour! Oddly, there are plenty of Europeans who have the qualities and skills but who are locked in the developed world where opportunity for new business is more limited. A proactive search would find them. Then we simply have to make it clear that they bear all the risk, will have all the work, but are guaranteed to have a story to tell their grandchildren, and many, many friends! Wouldn’t Africa be doing Europe a big favour and a favour to itself by offering hope to the frustrated would-be entrepreneurs of the developed world?

The teams that pioneer such ventures will have a lot of fun, but there is a word of caution to them. Do not think that you can whinge about poor telecommunications or risk-averse banking systems or poor roads. This is what we have in parts of Africa. We need people who can enjoy the limitations, find solutions, and then help to provide the cash to implement them.

The Blue Skies team had the imagination which led to finding the answer to the consumers’ call for fresher, sweeter and more interesting cut fruit. Now we have the only network of factories in the world which can truly say it offers fresh-from-harvest fresh-cut fruit. Europe wanted it; Africa made it possible.

Credits: Anthony Pile, Managing Director, Blue Skies