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Revolutionizing agribusiness in Ghana

Article - October 27, 2014

British entrepreneur's small agribusiness has grown to become one of the largest employers in Ghana, with 2,500-strong workforce and group turnover circa £60 million ($96.1 million) 

Seventeen years ago Anthony Pile was an unemployed 50-year-old, retired from the British army and fired from his last job because his big ideas were not well received.

Fast forward to the present day and Mr Pile proudly oversees his own company, Blue Skies, a revolutionary business with a group turnover of circa £60 million, which has breathed new life into agriculture in Ghana.

The company produces ‘fresh-cut fruits’ which are processed and packaged at source before being exported for sale in some of Europe’s top supermarkets. 

Blue Skies’ first factory in Ghana employed 35 people. Now the company employs 2,500 in the West African nation alone, with another four factories sprinkled around Africa and South America. 

“It was a different scene when we started,” said Mr Pile. 

“There was one mango farm, and now it has over 2000. The pineapple business was failing in those years, and it was rescued by Blue Skies. Tons of fruits now pass through our factory every week, and this provides opportunities for the country.”

The British entrepreneur laments that, despite Blue Skies’ obvious success, enthusiasm for agriculture generally has waned in Ghana over the past 17 years.

“Agriculture is regarded as a punishment for people, and farmers lack social status. That is a real shame. Being a huge employer in the agriculture sector gives us a voice. We are trying to find a solution to energize the large rural community.”

The Ghanaian government has, in recent years, spoken repeatedly of the need for the private sector to take the lead in adding value to the nation’s produce. But Mr Pile feels a wholesale change of mindset is needed for Ghana to truly become an export economy. 

“It is a scandal that we are still sending raw cocoa to Europe. Chocolate should be made at source, the way we do with fruit salad products. Why should we just stick to agricultural products? We have excellent air-links, we have a qualified workforce, and there is no reason why we can’t process raw materials here.”

Mr Pile practices what he preaches. Blue Skies’ business model is built around the revolutionary Joint Effort Enterprise concept, based on three strands: diversity, respect and profit.  At the heart of the philosophy is practicing equitable trade by adding value at source. By doing this, Blue Skies estimates as much as 70% of the value of the finished product stays within the country of origin, compared to as little as 15% if it is processed outside. 

This differs from the popular and successful ‘fair trade’ model, where farmers are supposed to receive fair prices but the produce is then exported overseas for processing.

“Fair trade says: you managers are being unfair to your farmers or subordinates. In JEE we believe in equal status,” Mr Pile said.

“Stakeholders are involved: from the consumers to people who work in the factory (we do not have workers in Blue Skies but ‘people’). It is important for us not to set people apart. We must be a part of a culture which respects each other, and which recognizes there is social equality between all of us. JEE also regards the community as a stakeholder, so we build skills. We have every possible component you can think of from the consumer to the farmer. JEE is far bigger than fair trade.”

The decorated British businessman thinks it is a mistake for investors to focus solely on hydrocarbons when looking at Ghana, especially in light of the enthusiasm for fracking and nuclear energy in Europe. He sees immense opportunities in agriculture and secondary industries to meet demands for packaging and sterile gloves, for example.

And the charismatic Englishman still feels he has an important role to play in the development of Blue Skies in the years to come. 

“When I look back on my life, I don’t feel that I have in any way fulfilled what I need to do. I hope that with the change in attitude towards older people, I can help the business grow. There is a lot more to be done.”

by Patrick Cooke in Ghana