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Bittersweet: going organic for pineapple in Uganda

With year-round production of organic pineapples, Jali Organic is attempting to tap into premium markets (Will Surman)
With year-round production of organic pineapples, Jali Organic is attempting to tap into premium markets
Will Surman

Populated solely by peasant farmers, the remote island of Bussi lies over a kilometre from the Uganda shore of Lake Victoria. With fertile soils and regular rains, year-round production of pineapple for local markets provides Bussi's farmers with their primary source of income. However, with an increasing demand for organic produce in European markets, two brothers who inherited land on the island have worked hard to gain organic Soil Association certification. This is a first for Ugandan pineapples, but their quest for certification has not yet guaranteed a better market for their produce.

With no electricity or much in the way of infrastructure, Bussi Island is one of more than 3,000 islands dotted around Lake Victoria, many of which are inhabited. Bussi is home to hundreds of subsistence farmers, who for many years have marketed their pineapples, reputed to be the sweetest in Uganda, through Kampala market, over 30 miles away on the mainland.

As in much of Uganda, fertilisers and pesticides are neither affordable nor readily accessible, so Bussi's pineapple production is organic by default. But, with organic certification difficult and expensive to achieve, little of Uganda's organic produce is currently exported. However, in 2001, on visiting land they had inherited some years earlier, Ephraim Muwanga and his brother Moses spotted a business opportunity that they felt they could develop. A short time later, Jali Organic was established to tap into the premium market with dried pineapple, harvested and processed on Bussi.

Gaining organic certification

At first, the islanders on Bussi were not convinced. "Initially the islanders thought we would evict them and it took time to convince them otherwise," says Ephraim Muwanga. "But after we told them about our win-win vision for Jali and the island, a deal was struck." The brothers promised the islanders a better standard of living by giving them a legal right to remain on the land and pledging to buy their pineapples at double the market price. In return, the farmers would have to put themselves forward to become certified as organic.

By promising to invest in the community and giving farmers legal tenure, Jali Organic is persuading farmers to be certified (Will Surman)
By promising to invest in the community and giving farmers legal tenure, Jali Organic is persuading farmers to be certified
Will Surman

Muwanga's call to the Soil Association - the UK's biggest organic certifiers - in 2003 was the first they had ever received from Uganda. Since Jali's official certification was confirmed in 2006, only one other Ugandan business has acquired the Soil Association stamp of approval for organic production, although organic certification from other certifiers has been awarded to over 30 exporters. Cost is the major constraint for any type of certification, and so far Jali has spent almost US$12,000 on the auditing process. "But we hope this investment will allow us to access lucrative international markets," says Muwanga.

Despite the promises to invest profits for the benefit of the community, it was not easy to convince Bussi farmers to become certified. Initially, only 23 farmers out of 120 underwent the Soil Association's tough 12 month auditing process. "If a comma was in the wrong place, the paperwork would be returned to us," recalls 17-year old pineapple farmer Martin Zinabala. "But eventually, it was worth it because the better pineapple price has helped my sisters pay their school fees." Gradually, the farmers are coming round and today Jali has 39 registered men and women members growing organic pineapples on just over 140 hectares.

Premium export deals prove elusive

Jali's growers deliver their pineapples for processing to a small brick building in the centre of the island. Here, the pineapples are washed, peeled, sliced, dried and packaged to exacting Soil Association hygiene standards, all within 24 hours of being picked. Working flat out the facility can produce 60kg of dried pineapple a day. "Like everything in Uganda, things take time but finally we have developed a great organic product, we are entirely traceable and we have the capacity to meet big orders," says Muwanga. Meanwhile, the main market remains in and around Kampala, and that does not pay the premium offered by export markets.

The pineapples are washed, peeled, sliced, dried and packaged ready for export (Will Surman)
The pineapples are washed, peeled, sliced, dried and packaged ready for export
Will Surman

Naturally, the islanders are looking forward to Jali's export business taking off, since education, health care, water supply and sanitation are all poor on Bussi, and Jali has made a commitment to invest a significant proportion of its profits in better infrastructure on the island. Some progress has already been made - when the new factory needed clean water, Jali dug a shallow well, bought a pump and installed a water tank, which has also benefited the previously dry hill-top village of Jali, where most of the farmers live.

Nevertheless, organic certification alone hasn't been enough to access the lucrative western markets that Jali has been striving for. As a result, the Muwangas have taken the next step to apply for Fairtrade certification. "Fairtrade is expensive. It will cost us a further US$8,000 to achieve it but we see it as the only way to go," emphasises Muwanga's brother Moses. The 18-month Fairtrade audit will be completed before the end of 2009.

On a flier for Jali's Organic, the strapline reads, "The future is bright, the future is pineapple." But for the Muwanga's, further hard work and investment will be required before they can be sure that their future - and that of the islanders - is bright.

Written by: Will Surman

Date published: July 2009

 

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