29 October 1999


For African farmers, getting

a product on to European

markets (and getting a

decent return for it) can be

a struggle. Suzie Emmett

found one group of producers

that has managed it

WITH their incredible flavour it is no wonder that the European market for sun-dried tropical fruits is growing fast.

What is surprising is that smallholder farmers in the remoter parts of Uganda are keeping up with that demand.

Take an uneven, steep, dirt track that winds off one of the main roads out of the capital, Kampala, and you arrive at what appears at first to be just another house. It is in fact the central depot of "Fruits of the Nile", a company which buys dried fruit. Wait a while on the verandah and, one by one, by battered pick-up and taxi, farmers arrive down the same winding track bringing their dried fruit for sale. Fruit dried with meticulous care and Ugandan sunshine.

Ugandas fertile soils produce fantastic yields of flavoursome pineapple, banana, papaya, mango and starfruit. Local markets for these fruits are limited as there are no canneries or big juice factories, so a lot of fruit rots where it grows. Or at least it did until the London-based company Tropical Wholefoods introduced a simple solar drier.

"I started with drying banana," says Jane Nalwaiero, "but now I specialise in pineapple and papaya. I have expanded, so I buy in pineapple from neighbouring farmers."

Solar drier

The solar drier looks simple – nothing more than mesh trays in a table-like casing – but it fits together perfectly so as to be impermeable to all the tropical insects that would love to get at the fruit. Fruits of the Nile offers low-interest loans so farmers can afford their own drier kit.

Before drying, fruit farmers like Jane have to look to the skies. As with haymaking, several clear days of sunshine are essential. "We listen to the forecast at 10 at night, but all the same we find ourselves in trouble sometimes!" she smiles.

Quality has to be high. "Farmers must select only the best fruit, slice it exactly and dry it perfectly" says Angello Nydaguma, the young managing director of Fruits of the Nile. It has to be packed and stored safe from insects and even then at the depot all fruit is picked over by hand, piece by piece, rejecting any fruit that is less than perfect. The final defence against damage by weevils is to freeze fruit for two days at 20C (-4F). Defrosted fruit is re-packed for transport overland through Kenya to Mombasa and shipping to London.

New producers are given intensive training in sun-drying to get the quality required. Thereafter, it is up to each farmer to maintain the standard. They are paid cash for the weight they bring to the depot on delivery; subsequent rejections will be deducted from their next payment. Rejections though are low – less than 1%.

Despite the cramped space, intermittent power cuts and water supply and phone-line failure, Fruits of the Nile has an atmosphere of quiet confidence. Watching another farmer unload his delivery of fruit for weighing, Angello Nydaguma describes the satisfaction he feels: "I never thought smallholder African farmers could export what they can grow and process to Europeans. Doing it makes me feel great."

The business has outgrown its first home. A move to purpose-built warehousing is planned to sort and ship a greater tonnage and there are plenty of farmers waiting to increase their production to supply it. "Drying fruit has helped me so much," says Jane Nawaleiro. "We have bought some more land. We were renting our house, now we own our home and farm. My plan is to get more land and plant more fruit."

Straight farm trade – not aid – is providing a future for her and many others.

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