First Step Economic Opportunity Zone: Challenges of Running a Juice Factory
“I can sell you 14 235 pineapples”, that’s what a farmer said to Claudio Scotto, CEO of Africa Felix Juice. 14 235 pineapples - quite an impressive figure at first glance. If you put it into the context of Claudio Scotto, you will end up with a different interpretation: A lot of small scale farmers have no idea on the dimensions of commercially run processing businesses, processing up to eight tons of fruits per day.
Last Friday I was invited to see the factory of Africa Felix Juice, the first fruit- processing company in Sierra Leone. Settled as the first and so far only tenant of the “Economic Opportunity Zone” established by “First Step”, Africa Felix Juice produces juice from locally grown mangoes, pineapples and even cashewapples that are being exported to different buyers, primarily in Europe.
A great idea, considering the tons of fruits that are lost every year due to a lack of customers. A great idea, considering the high unemployment rate, the physical and legal advantages of the Economic Opportunity Zone, and the very marketable story of juice from a socially engaged company from one of the least developed countries in the world.
What might seem so easy is indeed much trickier in reality. One can start with inappropriate planting distances of pineapples, wrong promises with regards to delivery volumes, non-availability of electricity and the unavailability of certification bodies and round up with street bribery, 121 rules to export pineapples and containers that are held for drug inspections for weeks.
Nevertheless, Africa Felix Juice manages its daily operations and tries to develop solutions. One thing that proved to work is the “Blockfarming Model”. The farmers’ fields are clustered and farmed commonly. The investor takes care of all inputs and provides food for the farmers in the initial stage of the project. In return, the producers commit themselves to sell all their products to the investor. In this way, varieties and farm practices can be influenced and delivery planned. The principles of the model are not new and have been adapted widely worldwide. In Sierra Leone, Balmed, a cocoa and coffee exporting company, in collaboration with GIZ, has developed it under the name “Blockfarming” and now applies it in collaboration with Theobroma, a Dutch cocoa trading company. In fact, the pineapple- blockfarms that now supply Africa Felix Juice have been set up as a trial for Balmed- a pineapple’s growing period is shorter than that of cocoa or coffee.
Other solutions are on the way: Plans for a small biowaste plant and solar panels to power the Economic Opportunity Zone are worked on, the factory is surrounded by trial- plots of pineapples and the drug inspection got used to containers from Freetown. What is not available in country has to be flewn in: certification bodies from Germany and technical experts that can train local staff.
All in all, Africa Felix Juice can definitely serve as a role model for further investments in the country- instead of just talking and making plans, they did it, regardless many challenges. We hope the Business Booster can help facilitating some of these challenges in future. Because, as stated earlier: Demand and opportunities are just out here!
Business Booster is a joint program of the YEN (Youth Employment Network), UNIDO and Endeva. The project seeks to pilot a holistic multi-stakeholder approach to increasing the earnings of youth-led cooperatives in Sierra Leone, by enabling them to access premium markets such as the US and/or the high value domestic market where they would compete with foreign imports. In doing so, the project will not only increase the revenues of young low-income farmers’ but also test an innovative approach that can be scaled up and help smallholder farmers and producers in a range of contexts tap into premium markets.
At the center of the Business Booster approach is the One Stop Shop. This will be a local organization that will serve as a central player and link food processing companies and/or smallholder farmers to opportunities in premium markets both locally and abroad. It will be serve as an interface for farmers and producers to receive the support they need in key areas such as product quality, marketing and access to markets.
Maren Peters, is currently in Sierra Leone conducting a needs assessment of the cooperatives involved in the Business Booster and a country assessment of the agro-processing sector in order to prepare the business plan of the One Stop Shop.
Maren shares her experiences in this blog with Business Fights Poverty members. Stay tuned for future blogs.