Awards 1997 World Vision Award for Development Initiative

World Vision Award for Development Initiative

The Winner: Adam Brett and Kate Sebag

If you have a bright idea to help an overseas country, the best way to get it taken up is to take it up yourself. That is what Adam Brett has done.

The idea was that Ugandan farmers should use the sun to dry their surplus fruit and then sell it abroad. Some of the farmers thought it a crazy idea. Who would want to buy shrivelled old mango and pineapple when they could buy the real, juicy thing?

British shopkeepers were unimpressed also - until they saw the bags of dried fruit being snapped up from market stalls.

Adam who was born in Uganda went to Cambridge University and got involved with the Footlights Club. This set him off on a career as stage manager. Then he went back to Uganda, where his father engaged him as his assistant on a British aid project concerned with fruit processing - canning, juicing, drying.

Africa was littered with drying projects that didn't work. Dryers had tended to be large, drying tonnes a week. Adam experimented with a drier for 25 kilogrammes: essentially a goat proof box which a village carpenter could make, and women could easily load.

He teamed up with the friend of a friend, Angello Ndyaguma, who had a small import-export business and knew how to deal with government officials and transport arrangements. They formed Fruits of the Nile, where Angello is managing director. Kate Sebag, who was working in Uganda for the agency Tools for Self Reliance, also got involved.

Adam travelled back and forth, picking up dried fruit at Gatwick, storing it under the stairs at his home, selling it at Camden or Spitalfields, then doing a bit of stage management. He decided he couldn't compete against currants and raisins in the home-baking field, so he sold his fruit in packets as chewy snacks. He financed his journeys by selling secondhand computers in Uganda when he went there.

In 1988 he had happened to meet two consultants from the Natural Resources Institute, now part of Greenwich University. The upshot was that he and institute experts produced handbooks showing farmers how to build a drier, how to dry fruit, how to do accounts. Instruction cards in colour show what saleable dried pineapple/mango/banana looks like. Fruits of the Nile also organises instruction workshops.

In 1993, Adam and Kate decided to go into business full time. Kate's family put in some money, which has been augmented by ploughing back profit. Adam is currently raising low-interest loans in addition. Having to pay for stock in Africa way in advance of being paid for it remains a problem. Nevertheless Adam is confident of a growing market for dried tropical fruits. "People love them," he says.

He and Kate pay suppliers 55 per cent of the money they receive, which means they have to run an efficient, streamlined operation. Farmers get a guaranteed market, which has enabled one women's co-operative to set up a health clinic from its fruit-drying profits. Farmers are diligent about quality.

A visiting journalist mentioned Tropical Wholefoods to women who were growing oyster mushrooms near the Rwandan border but having problems selling them fresh. As a result, Kate Sebag went to see them and offered to buy dried mushrooms. There proved to be a small but growing market in the United Kingdom, so that 50 groups of women in the area now have a new way to earn cash for their families.

Adam and Kate have widened their sources of supply. They buy from the Cercle des Secheurs (Dryers' circle) founded by the Centre Ecologique Albert Schweitzer in Burkina Faso. The circle had more dried fruit available than it was selling.

The Commonwealth Science Council got Adam and Angello to hold a workshop in Guyana, and they showed their good faith by buying produce there and then. Tropical Wholefoods now buy dried mango and starfruit from Tropical Organics, a local fairtrade company. Both new suppliers have introduced appropriate techniques at low cost to rural communities and guarantee markets for their produce.

Once in Britain, the dried fruit goes into cold storage, to kill any trace of fruit fly. Then it goes to Tropical Wholefoods' well-equipped new warehouse in South London and then via wholesalers to about 800 health food shops, and to Oxfam, Traidcraft and European fair-trade organisations. Annual turnover is over 250,000. One observer writes: "I would think the supermarkets will eventually wake up to the potential."

Most fruit is sold in packets but a growing amount is used in manufactured products. Fulwell Mill Bakery in Sunderland, which employs disabled people, makes dried banana into a bar called Banana Fruitjack. This sells at the rate of 150 cases a month.

Angello Ndyaguma writes from Uganda: "Most farmers engaged in fruit drying have managed to send their children to school and have acquired radios and black and white television sets. A number boast solar electricity in their homes. They never used to have these things. And this is a result of Tropical Wholefoods finding markets for their products."

An update on Tropical Wholefoods