Growing fruit makes sense for many smallholder farmers in Southern Uganda. Lots of sun and rain provide fertile land for bananas and pineapples. Unfortunately the local market is not so fertile. Much of the demand comes from areas that local farmers cannot profitably reach. Fruit goes to waste and income is unreliable. Yet there’s a significant market for dried fruit in other parts of the world.
Fruits of The Nile (FoN) saw an opportunity. As a commercial business, it knew that drying fruit massively extends its shelf-life, while transport costs of the lighter and less perishable end-product are considerably less. With plenty of farmers and fruit available, FoN now needed to set up a network of producers who could dry the fruit. But it also needed a cheap and reliable way of drying it.
The solution was the sun, or to be precise simple timber-framed cabinet dryers which used the sun to maximum effect. The dryers cost US$300 each, but FoN provides loans to local producers to cover some of the cost. FoN also oversees quality control, a critical issue for an increasingly organic product.
By 2009 FoN had a network of 930 farmers and 139 producers – some individuals and some groups. Producers can earn up to US$2,000 per year, about half of which is profit (twice the salary of a teacher). Farmers earn about US$100 per year from selling fruit to producers. Estimates suggest a total of 1,400 people and their wider families are benefiting directly from the project as employment prospects improve and volumes grow.
Inevitably any food business is vulnerable to the climate - both meteorological and financial. But despite drought and credit crunch the business is expanding. In 2008, FoN sold 37 tonnes of dried banana and 36 tonnes of pineapple with plans for a wider range of fruits under way. And in August 2009, as a sign of its achievement and its potential, it delivered its first organic shipment of 15 tonnes of dried fruit to Europe.