Sierra Leone’s First Fruit Juice Factory Adding Value to Farming
Inter Press Service
FREETOWN, May 12 (IPS) – Crate loads of lush ripe mangos are stacked up, a sweet fragrance filling the air. Factory workers wait for their instructions, decked out in protective coats, rubber boots and hairnets. As they see each other kitted out for the first time, they break into giggles. This is a big week for Sierra Leone as its first fruit- processing plant goes into production.
The mangos move around a mesh of steel tubes and eventually, as if by magic, a smooth golden nectar pours out from a spout.
For this tiny West African country, the arrival of Africa Felix juice manufacturing company is a momentous occasion, not just because this is a state-of-the-art plant but also because, unlike with the country’s other abundant natural resources, value addition will be happening inside its borders this time round.
Much-needed foreign exchange will be generated as the company targets regional and European markets.
While Sierra Leone’s export diamonds are a mining corporation’s best friend, two-thirds of the population here depend on agriculture. Focusing on a natural resource that is as abundant as the ubiquitous mango made sense for the company’s founder, Claudio Scotto.
“When I came here for the first time, I couldn’t believe how fertile the place was and just how much fruit was available. It seemed like an obvious business idea to use what was here.”
The Swiss-Italian Scotto says that this project has been about more than just setting up a new business venture: “People think you can make a difference in the world by donating to charities. I think you can make a difference by fully engaging with the world.
“My motivation is partly about making money but along the way I know I will be making a difference by creating new jobs for factory workers and farmers,” he says as he fingers the “Make Poverty History” rubber bracelet around his wrist which he has promised himself he will take off only when the factory is a success.
The factory was started with Scotto’s savings and investments from the Dutch government, an Italian machinery company and a U.S.-based charity called World Hope International. The charity has worked with the Sierra Leone government to create “First Step”, an export-processing zone that the government calls an “export opportunity zone”.
World Hope International is a Christian “relief and development organisation” working to alleviate poverty.
The export-processing zone is a tax-free haven designed to attract new local and international companies. It also offers guaranteed electricity and water, a massive incentive in Sierra Leone, as both are scarce resources.
Africa Felix is the first factory to be constructed in the zone and it hopes to process three tonnes of fruit per hour, 24 hours a day, while meeting tough EU sanitary standards.
To ensure a smooth supply, Scotto has been working with World Hope International to train local farmers to gear up for pineapple production. “We have a network of 1,500 organic farmers across the country who will operate loosely organised village cooperatives.”
In addition, 80 people will be employed in the factory when it goes into production, earning between 80 euro a month for loaders and fruit sifters and 300 euro a month for more skilled workers.
“Eventually we hope to apply for fairtrade status and one day even make biofuels from the mango seeds which are very oily,” Scotto beams.
“There is a company in Senegal that buys its pineapples from Belgium. They in turn probably import them from China. That’s economically and environmentally foolish. We can do better than that for the region and for the EU by supplying the world’s sweetest fruits, made in one of the poorest countries in Africa with some of the greatest human potential.”
Sierra Leone is in the 61st position on the list of the world’s easiest places to start a business — above Spain and South Africa. However, once you have started, actually doing business here is apparently appreciably hard as the country ranks 143 out of a possible 183. But it is in the top five of sub-Saharan African countries for “protecting investments”.
When asked about how easy it has been to do business here, Scotto throws his hands in the air in frustration. “There is an old negative perception of Sierra Leone which reflects an inherent bias against Africa. It’s been easy here, really easy. This factory is testament to that,” he says surveying his newly constructed building in the low russet sunset.
The workers that IPS spoke to expressed satisfaction about the hourly payments. One employee, a former plumber who introduced himself simply as Ibrahim, told IPS that he is one of the skilled workers who installed the fruit pulping line and will now be responsible for maintenance of the machinery.
“The job has given me lots of new ideas of how to work in a different environment and I have developed my skills to become a mechanic too. I work with a good team of people, I have more security for my family and improved peace of mind here.”