Solar fruit drying

Many smallholder farmers in Southern Uganda grow fruit as their main cash crop. The long distances to consumers, coupled with insufficient local demand, means that much of the fruit grown goes to waste, particularly during the months of peak production.

Fruits of the Nile is a fruit-export business, which was set up to link rural producers to export markets. Because of the cost and difficulty of transporting fresh produce, the company has focused on dried fruit. Using simple, solar-heated driers means that drying can be carried out on the farms which grow the fruit.

I’m a widow and people told me that I’d never make a business from solar drying, but I’ve earned enough to put my five children through school and by next year three of them will be at University.

Norah Kagimu, dried banana producer

The organisation

Fruits of the Nile was founded in 1991. In 2007 it employed 37 people at the fruit sorting and packing factory in Njeru, Uganda, and bought from 120 dried-fruit producer groups. Its turnover in 2007 was about US$672,000. By 2009, it had 20 full time staff working at the factory and an additional 10 people hired on a seasonal basis. Turnover fell to US$243,000 (4.4 million USh) in 2009 and staff numbers reduced to about 30 because the credit crunch cut sales in Europe and a year long drought across Uganda caused shortages in the supply of raw fruit.

Most of the funding for Fruits of the Nile comes from its sales of dried fruit, but a major grant from the Shell Foundation supported the process of organic certification, and a commercial loan funded the expansion of the factory.

A fruit producer with a solar drier filled with banana slices.

The technology

How does it work?

Most of the driers are simple, timber-framed cabinets, covered in standard UV-stabilised agricultural polythene. The cabinet is raised off the ground using wooden legs, which rest on stones for stability and to reduce insect attack. Inside the drier is a rack to support the plastic mesh trays on which the fruit is laid out. Fresh fruit is collected from the producer’s own land or bought from approved local farmers. When it has reached the appropriate ripeness, it is sliced by hand, and laid out on the plastic mesh trays and dried. The dried fruit is packed and sent to the Fruits of the Nile factory where it is sorted, bagged and labelled, and then packed into boxes for export.

To ensure quality, each drier is built on site by a Fruits of the Nile carpenter. Driers last for about five years if well maintained, although the polythene sheet has to be replaced every three to five seasons depending on how carefully it is looked after.

Fruits of the Nile has also constructed eight larger driers, built on the ground with a concrete slab base to store heat. These either have chimneys to increase the air flow by natural convection, or solar powered fans to force convection. Although these driers are more efficient, they cost about six times as much as a cabinet drier, and are too expensive for most producers.

How much does it cost and how do users pay?

US$1 = 1,656 Uganda Shillings (USh) [April 2008]

A drier costs about US$300 (500,000 USh). A producer will normally contribute about two thirds of the cost by buying the timber, nails and some other materials locally. Fruits of the Nile supplies the UV protected polythene sheet, plastic mesh and the labour to construct the driers. This contribution is made available to the producer as an interest-free loan. Individual producers and producer groups own an average of five driers each.

Producers are paid each time they deliver dried fruit to the factory.

Producers are paid US$1.50 (2,500 USh)/kg for dried banana and US$3 (5,000 USh)/kg for dried pineapple. Each time a producer delivers dried fruit to the factory, payment is made for the weight of accepted fruit which has been delivered, less a deduction for any fruit from the previous delivery which was subsequently rejected during sorting. A small repayment for any outstanding loan is also deducted. 

How is quality maintained?

Maintaining quality has always been crucial to the viability and success of Fruits of the Nile. If the dried fruit was not of acceptable quality, then the business and its supply chain would not survive. Quality and record keeping have to be even more rigorous now because of conversion to organic certified standards.

I had some fears that this kind of business would only last for a very short time. I didn’t think it was that serious. But I’m amazed because all the time the business is expanding.

Norah Kagimu, dried banana producer

If a farmer would like to join the Fruits of the Nile producer network, a field officer comes to assess the cleanliness and size of their home, the availability of clean water, the supply of fruit and whether they are competent to manage a small business. If selected, the farmer has to purchase the materials for the agreed number of driers, and when these are available the Fruits of the Nile carpenters construct them. Over a three day period, the field officer trains new producers in organic production, hygiene, food preparation, packing and running a business.

The producers must purchase only from other farmers who are registered with Fruits of the Nile, and have been trained to produce to organic standards. They must also keep a record of all fruit purchases. Producers and farmers are given regular refresher training and advice. The field officer makes regular unannounced checks as does the certification body (IMO-Switzerland). 

Factory

All the factory workers are trained ‘on the job’ in hygiene, sorting and packing, and strict hygiene rules are enforced. A record sheet is completed for each sorting table each day which shows name of the sorter, the name of the producer, the weight of rejected fruit and why it was unacceptable. In this way, problems with both factory staff and producers can be noticed and sorted out. Organic fruit is handled separately from normal production.

Sorting and packing dried pineapple for export at the Fruits of the Nile factory.

Fruits of the Nile has a rigorous quality management system using paper and computer records, to comply with organic certification requirements.

Benefits

Fruits of the Nile sold about 120 tonnes of solar dried fruit in 2007, half of this banana and half pineapple. 

Environmental benefits

The move to organic production has improved the local environment on the farms, for both primary producers and farmers. Fruit waste and peelings from the processing are all composted or fed to cattle, goats and chickens. No chemical fertilisers or insecticides are used, which is particularly important for illiterate farmers who might make mistakes through not understanding the instructions.

Solar drying uses renewable energy and does not produce any greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental impacts. The fruit is dried close to where it is grown, reducing transport costs. Shipping dried fruit to overseas markets is also less energy intensive than transporting the same fruit when fresh. It does not require chilled stores, or air freight, and the value of fruit that can be transported in one container is much higher.

Economic and employment benefits

The work of Fruits of the Nile brings income and skills to all within the supply and production chain.

I can get books for the children and pay school fees. I think their future is bright. If they keep going to school, they’ll get an education and then they will be able to make something of themselves in the world. It will help them succeed.

Beingi Lovence, Kamunyiga Carers Group, grandmother of six orphaned children

By 2007, 840 farmers were supplying fruit to 120 producer groups (70% female), which typically employ between one and five labourers to help with fruit preparation. Farmers supplying producers earn about US$97 (170,000 USh) per year from selling fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste. There are also 37 factory workers (55% female) earning about US$1,000 (1.7 million USh) per year. This means that about 1,400 people directly earn an income from the work of Fruits of the Nile. An average Ugandan family has six to seven people, so at least 8,000 family members benefit from the business. However, some of the people who are earning care for many more people, including orphans, so the benefits probably go much further.

An average Ugandan family has six to seven people, so at least 8,000 family members benefit from the business. However, some of the people who are earning care for many more people, including orphans, so the benefits probably go much further.

During 2007, each producer group sold an average of one tonne of dried fruit to Fruits of the Nile, earning US$2,200 (3.8 million USh), about half of which is profit. For comparison, the salary of a primary school teacher is typically US$900 (1.5 million USh) per year. For most producers, the main use of this new income has been to educate their children, paying secondary school fees and in some cases being able to put children through university. Producers also improve their homes, and may be able to afford more land or livestock.