Ernest Abloh of Blue Skies Holdings
Setting the standard
Blue Skies Holdings chief agronomist Ernest Abloh gives his personal viewpoint on how to run a successful business, which relies on air freight while upholding ethical principles and contributing to long-term development.
Praise from on high
We were the first company to be licensed to the Soil Association's Ethical Trade Standards. We were really proud when they described us recently as a "model for development." I was part of the debate last year over the possible ban on organic air freight into the UK and I went there to defend the African farmers.
I pointed out that if we measure the carbon footprint of a Ghanaian and compare it to someone from the UK, the difference is huge. In the UK it's ten tonnes per person, per year, while in Ghana it's only 350kg. You just cannot compare the two. I don't think there is a strong case for a ban and I believe air freight should continue to be certified as organic.
When Blue Skies came to Nsawam, Ghana, in 1998, unemployment was one of the major problems in the town. Now we are the biggest employer in the area with 1,800 people. We supply markets in Europe with pineapple, papaya, passion fruit and coconut and our sales account for one per cent of Ghana's export earnings. Now we find everyone wants to work for us - every day there are 200-300 people waiting at the gate, looking for work.
We pay about four-times the government minimum wage. Most of our employees have at least five or six dependents, so what we pay goes a long way to support the wider community. We also provide transport to our employees. I feel it is very important to value the community and understand their needs; we are making a profit and they deserve to have a share.
Since we opened the factory here, there have been tremendous improvements in the area. We put money into school projects, sports complexes and road building. We have also helped provide electricity and water to villages in more distant areas. If the community seeks help from us and we think it's realistic, we go the extra mile to assist them.
Seal of approval
We currently work with 160 farmers in Ghana. In the beginning we gave them technical advice, ran workshops and on-farm trials to help them meet international standards and prepare them for certification. Now a group of eight agronomists visits the farmers every day to make sure everything is going well.
We were the first farmer group in the world to be EUREPGAP-certified. All our farmers are GLOBALGAP-certified and many are certified organic. We paid for all the certification costs, some of which were very expensive, like putting up toilets, washrooms and so on.
We also have a good relationship with our partners, the airlines especially. Good communication has been vital to keeping the company going. We also have a culture of trust and respect. Everyone is very proud of this; it's one of the things that has really pushed us far.
I believe the Blue Skies strategy can be used in other developing countries. We have a model called a "joint effort enterprise." It's a partnership; an understanding between ourselves and our colleagues, farmers and partners. The most important thing is that we show trust and respect for each other. We don't see it as a "master-worker" relationship: we talk about people; we all stick together and push the business forward.
Oil prices are currently our biggest problem - we air freight between 15-20 tonnes of fruit every day and the cost is rising all the time. Running the electricity generators is also becoming expensive. The road networks in Ghana are very poor and sometimes congestion causes delays in getting food to the airport.
But overall, I believe we have the capacity, we have the people and we see ourselves getting stronger in the future. We will continue to work together to overcome these challenges.
Date published: July 2008
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