Uganda: The power of the sun, fruits and faith in a packet

Angello (left) and James in the Fruits of the Nile dried fruit company Uganda

Angello (left) and James hope to have heavy bags of dried fruit for the scales soon

On the desk is a small round plastic container – the sort that is commonly used to buy olives in posh delis in Europe – inside it are small reddish-brown wrinkled-looking things that I’m struggling to identify.

“Berries, dried berries,” explains 46-year-old Angello Ndaguma. He is co-founder and managing director of a Ugandan dried fruits company called Fruits of the Nile and it is his office desk I am looking at. And, just for the record – I’m barefoot.

I arrive at the factory by the ubiquitous Ugandan transport – the motorcycle taxi, the boda boda. Situated just outside the town of Jinja – famous as the source of that most evocative of rivers: the Nile – I am informed by the kindly old security guard that “the procedure is to take off your shoes”.

In a European food factory this might seem a bit excessive but looking down at my muddy shoes from the muddy streets of Jinja this procedure makes perfect sense. And so it has come to pass that I am conducting my first barefoot interview.

Sitting with Angello is his training manager and field supervisor, 52-year-old James Babumba, and both have furrowed brows as they look at the berries.

Fruits of the Nile works like this: The company has more than 400 certified organic and fair-trade farms which grow bananas and pineapple for it in co-operatives. Around 80 of those farmer groups have also installed solar dryers, simple but hygienic wooden, screened boxes that include UV-stabilised polythene to make optimal use of the sun to dry the fruit. Thus the farms are turned into mini-factories processing the fruit.

That fruit is then transported to the Jinja factory for quality control, sorting and packaging, before being shipped off to Europe to find its way into high quality fruit bars and snack aisles – often under the brand Tropical Wholefoods.

Like all agricultural ventures the weather can make or break you but for Fruits of the Nile, which also relies on the sun for part of its processing, plentiful sunshine at the right time of the year is doubly important. 

This year rains started falling in July – smack-bang in the middle of what is meant to be the dry season – and the rain is still falling. The gleaming stainless steel benches where up to 30 people would normally be working, sorting and packing are empty.

They have some back-up stock saved from previous seasons but not as much as usual because the last few years has seen their farms make the difficult and expensive conversion to organic certification. Normally they have more than 600 farms working for them but many are still undergoing the organic certification and so currently 200 are listed as 'dormant'.

The berries are an experiment to see if this product can step in as a replacement for the bananas and pineapples while Angello and James wait for the more plentiful sun to come back – but they’re not yet sure of the result, hence the furrowed brows.

Nevertheless they are philosophical and optimistic. Anyone looking to survive in agriculture has to be. And Fruits of the Nile has operated for 20 years – growing from a three-man, three-farm operation with produce that could be fit in a large woman’s handbag to its current size;  a medium-sized employer in the region, its own factory, hundreds of farmers as suppliers supporting thousands of people.

What’s more it has faced, and survived, challenges others could barely imagine. Its dried mango line was put an end to when the vicious Lords Resistance Army (a northern separatist group) attacked the government farm where Fruits of the Nile was pioneering the product. This was 1995, people were abducted and are still missing.

The north calmed down after 2005 as the Lords Resistance Army lost its stronghold in Uganda but by then Fruits of the Nile had lost its chance – other regions of the world were supplying dried mango.

So goes the harsh reality of international business but these men never expected their jobs to be easy. On the contrary, the whole reason for Fruits of the Nile existing is to do what others in Africa weren’t – namely get more money out of each fruit by processing on the continent, instead of simply exporting the raw fruit and allowing all the processing to take place in the West.

Historically, producers of staple African crops like coffee and cocoa have had little incentive to do any of the processing in their own countries as any thing except the raw product would attract large import duties when sold into Europe and America.

With fruits, however, the case is different. Fruit comes in seasons – they are plentiful for a period and then disappear. Farmers in Uganda had more fruit than they could get to market in the peak season. Fruit, and income, was going to waste, but solar drying preserves both.

And solar-drying ticks a heck of a lot of boxes. It’s obviously environmentally friendly – it also makes sense in countries where rural people have little access to electricity and banks are loath to give loans for anything agriculture related – so high-tech is really not an option.

As time has gone on, and the world has become concerned about ‘food miles’ – how much carbon dioxide is created by transporting food – drying at the point of origin makes even more sense. Drying the fruit means it reduces in size and needs less trucks to transport it and it doesn’t have to be transported quickly – it is shipped, instead of flown, to the west.

I ask Angello whether he thinks his western supermarket consumers are aware of the economic advantages for Ugandans and the environmental advantages for the world of purchasing their product. He is not wearing his rose-tinted glasses when he answers.

“People have very little time to do their shopping so they don’t really analyse this packet or that packet and which makes more impact because they go quickly, pick and go home.

“Very few people in Europe would definitely understand.”

Neither can those people know the human stories that keep both Angello and James going – especially at times like this when first, rampant inflation in Uganda, and then the weather, are working against them.

They volunteer a story each. The first is of a woman whose husband died suddenly very soon after they became solar dryers. She had eight children to look after, six of her own and two from her husband’s previous marriage.

A widow with eight children in a rural area is usually a recipe for misery but this woman was able to keep going with the solar drying alone and she has now put two children through university with more heading that way.

The second story is of a young couple. At the time they started solar drying they had nothing but a sewing machine to their name which took up most of the space in their tiny rented accommodation. However, they were able to beg the use of some unused land from a farmer and started solar drying. Now they have a piece of land for their own, a decent house and one of their two children in university.

It’s not a journalist’s place to judge these things but, with so much to work for, and their constant energy and enterprise, (whether the dried berries work or not) I’m 100 per cent sure Fruits of the Nile will survive this difficult season. Nevertheless this is a deeply religious country and both Angelo and James confide they are praying hard for sunshine.

As I hand back my hair net, and once more don my shoes, I find myself promising them I’ll spend a bit of time on bended knee too.

Chrisanthi Giotis