Success that's cut and dried
More impressive even than the mouth-tingling flavour of sun-dried fruit is the satisfaction radiating from the faces of farmers who bring sacks of top-grade dried bananas, pineapple and mangoes to the Fruits of the Nile depot in a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. "I never thought smallholder African farmers could export what they can grow and process to Europeans," says Angello Nydaguma, the young managing-director of the depot, as he watches another farmer unload his delivery for weighing. "Doing this job makes me feel great."
However, producing such a perfect product needs more than sunshine and enthusiasm. It needs meticulous attention to detail by the farmers and those checking and packing each consignment for export to the London-based Fair Trade company, Tropical Wholefoods.
Five years ago Jane Naluwairo started drying unwanted bananas but now she specializes in pineapple. "I only ever select the best quality of fruits for drying," she explains. "If you do not start with perfect fruit at just the right ripeness for slicing you will not get the best product." Precisely sliced pineapple, banana, mango, papaya or carambola (star-fruit) stays three days in a solar drier specially-designed to deny even the smallest insect a feast on the fast-drying fruit. The drier is also covered in a specialized plastic to filter out harsh UV rays, which would otherwise blacken the fruit. The driers are made from local timber but require shelves made from high standard mesh imported from the UK. Costing about US$150 each, farmers are offered loans to help them to afford their own solar drier kit and are given extensive training on how to use it.
On delivery to the depot, farmers are paid in cash according to weight. More importantly to these smallholders, they are assured a guaranteed price. Rejections of damaged, discoloured or unevenly dried fruit are deducted from the next payment although, according to Angello Nydaguma, less than 1% is generally discarded. The final defense against damage by weevils is to deep freeze fruit for two days. Defrosted fruit is then repacked for transport through Kenya to Mombassa and shipping to London.
As the European market for dried fruit steadily grows, Tropical Wholefoods is encouraging its existing suppliers to expand production and to add new products to its range. Chanterelle mushrooms from Zambia and dried mango from Burkina Faso, both of which have organic certification from the UK Soil Association, are proving very popular. Meanwhile, farmers in northern Pakistan are hopeful that their Hunza apricots will have the same success. As farmers are selected by Tropical Wholefoods from rural areas where fruits are free from pesticides and fertilizers, it is hoped that more farmers in the future will gain organic certification to add further value to their products.
Back in Uganda, Fruits of the Nile, has outgrown the small converted home where it began, and plans to move to larger purpose-built premises. Jane Naluwairo reveals her expansion plans, "To produce more, I'm buying in pineapple from my neighbours. The only problem is transport" she says but then adds with a laugh, "But if these Europeans keep eating more and more of the dried fruits we produce I'll soon be buying a vehicle of my own!" Other founder farmers of Fruits of the Nile are also being encouraged to train others to use the solar driers and to produce the high quality required; over 100 farmer groups now grow, sun dry and sell fruits and vegetables to Tropical Wholefoods.
On the pineapple packets sold in Europe, it states simply "Ingredients: Pineapple". There are neither chemicals, such as sulphur, nor added sugar, both common ingredients in other dried fruit products. There is also no mention of the professionalism and consistent attention to detail by farmers such as Jane, but one bite of the chewy texture and the flavour says it all!For further information: www.wholefood.co.uk/tropical.htm or email: TropicalWF@aol.com
Article written and photographs supplied by Susie Emmett, freelance journalist