Blue Skies airlifts freshly cut fruit from Ghana to international markets (Photo: Blue Skies)
Founded in 1998, Blue Skies Holdings Limited (Blue Skies) is a company based in the Republic of Ghana (Ghana) and the United Kingdom (UK) that exports freshly cut fruit to supermarkets in Europe, and also produces and sells 100% natural fruit juice in Europe and Ghana. All of Blue Skies’ products are harvested, cut and packed in the country of origin, which is in line with the company’s founding philosophy of Joint Effort Enterprise (JEE). JEE is a model for sustainable business that builds on adding value to its products at the source and promotes diversity and a culture of respect between the company, its staff, farmers, and partners. Through this philosophy, Blue Skies has transformed from a startup with three people to an international company of over 2,000 employees. In order to augment its Ghanan factory with fruits that are unavailable or out of season in the country, the company has factories in the Federative Republic of Brazil (Brazil), the Arab Republic of Egypt (Egypt), and the Republic of South Africa (South Africa). The social and corporate responsibility the company has endeavored to maintain since its inception provides end consumers with fresh, high quality products, and significantly contributes to the local communities in which it operates.
While working as managing director of Orchard House Foods (OHF), a fruit specialty store based in the UK, Mr. Anthony Pile came up with an idea to cut and pack fresh fruit at a factory in the country of origin located close to where the raw materials are sourced. The fruit would then be airlifted directly to retailers within 48 hours. Such a method would ensure that the fruit was as fresh as possible. Furthermore, since a close relationship could be developed with farmers to provide needed technology and expertise to improve their agricultural practices, the fruit would be of extremely high quality. Airlifting the end product to retailers from the source would also eliminate the need for ripening agents, artifical flavorings, chemicals, and other additives that are typically used to extend the shelf life of food products. As a result, the end consumer could literally enjoy fresh fruit that was in the farmer’s fields a mere two days prior. The young entrepreneur’s idea was in stark contrast to traditional fruit production practices in the UK, where the raw marterials are shipped over a period of weeks to the country for processing.
Anthony Pile, founder of Blue Skies (Photo: Blue Skies)
Beyond providing consumers with some of the freshest fruit products available, Pile’s idea would also maximize the benefits for local farmers, many of whom are in developing countries, by providing much needed jobs and local economic stimulation. Intent on doing his research first, Pile traveled to Ghana to assess the viability of his idea. Because he wanted to make a positive contribution to a rural economy in need, Pile chose the Nsawam region of Ghana due to its proximity to fruit producers and its extremely high unemploymant rate. Building a factory there would bring much needed jobs and generate demand for other services in the region. With a location and business plan in hand, Pile made his case to the Board of OHG. Unfortunately, Pile could not convince the Baord, so he decided to go it alone. “I wasn’t a born entrepreneur,” he explained. “I found myself with an opportunity and was able to take it.”
Unable to secure financing via traditional lenders such as banks, Pile had to turn to his friends, find private investors, sell his possessions, and mortgage his house. With the help of Mr. Seth K. Dei in Ghana and another partner, in 1998 Pile formed Blue Skies and set up the company’s factory in Nsawam. Working with local farmers, the Nsawam factory quickly supplied retailers in Europe with a steady supply of tropical fruits, specifically sugarloaf pineapple (a small, elongated, white-flesh pineapple), papaya, and coconut. By 2012, the company employed over 1,500 people at its Nsawam factory, and expanded its operations to include factories in South Africa, Egypt, and Brazil. The factories outside of Ghana have allowed the company to increase its range of products to deciduous and citrus varieties of fruit that cannot grow in Ghana. Furthermore, they also strengthen the company’s supply of fruit that is only seasonally available in Ghana, such as mango, which is supplied by Blue Skies’ Brazilian factory during Ghana’s mango offseason. Because all of the company’s products are processed at the source (that is, in the same country and region where the fruit was harvested), local communities such as Nsawam – one of the most deprived regions in Ghana – have benefited immensely, and high quality products are delivered to consumers.
The company also places importance on new product development, which it believes is significant to its continued growth. Committed to increasing the variety and longevity of its products – without compromising quality – Blue Skies has a dedicated research and development (R&D) team at each of its locations that is responsible for developing new products, particularly in response to changing market trends. The company’s overarching R&D goal is to remain ahead of its competition in quality and innovation, while continuing to add product value in the country of origin and adhere to its JEE philosophy.
An equally important part of Blue Skies’ R&D is to continually update and modernize its processing facilities. In 2007, the company built a new factory at its Ghana location, which includes state-of-the-art refrigeration and high-tech communication systems, along with an information technology (IT) center with computers with Internet access and a sports facility for staff. Completed in three months, the new factory can produce twice as much fresh fruit products and juices as the old one, and provides staff with educational and recreational opportunities (such as computer classes and a basketball court). Furthemore, the company brought in additional new technologies such as biodegradable packaging, biomass energy, and bio-ehtanol fuels to cut down on energy consumption and remain as eco friendly as possible. All of these initiatives ensure that waste is minimal and quality and freshness are not compromised.
Blue Skies' success hinges on close relationships with farmers (Photo: Blue Skies)
Blue Skies does not enter into formal contracts with its farmers. Instead, the company has developed a close and informal relationship with the local farming community, purchasing the fruit directly from them just as anyone else in the region would. The company relies mostly on small-scale farmers (also known as smallholders) because it believes they can spread the benefit reaped from their transactions more equally among the community without any potential restraints that a complicated legal partnership agreement could entail. Although Blue Skies does have a general price and volume agreed upon with the farmers for the year, the company has found that, for its purposes, an informal relationship built on trust and transparency is more profitable than formal contracts.
Such a model has proven to be sucessful for both Blue Skies and its suppliers, which is evident in the establishment of the Blue Skies Organic Collective Association (BSOC), the company’s first cooperative partner. Based in Nsawam, BSOC is a collaboration between Blue Skies and local farmers, and as of 2012 comprised of over 80 farmers (including four women) who are members of four villagel-level collectives in the region. BSOC farmers provide the company with sugarloaf pineapple, a unique variety that local farmers have been cultivating for decades. A steady supply of quality sugarloaf pineapple is essential to Blue Skies, as the fruit’s sweetness makes it exceedingly popular.
When Blue Skies first started working in Ghana in 1997, the company’s network of farmers desired to have access to foreign markets. However, the farmers’ production methods and equipment were lacking, and they did not have an effective means of distribution abroad. Furthermore, at the time access to European markets required EurepGAP certification, which was a common farm management standard created in the late 1990s by the major European supermarkets and their suppliers. The aim of EurepGAP was to rely on agreed-upon Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to bring conformity to different retailers’ supplier standards, as the diversity in standards caused many problems for farmers, including those in the Nsawam region. For example, before EurepGAP, if farmers such as those in Nsawam were to sell their products to retailers in Europe, they would have to meet many different standards. This presents a signifcant hurdle for farmers without advanced equipment and processing methods. However, EurepGAP brought one common standard, which Nsawam farmers were eager to achieve EurepGAP certification to have access to Europe’s major supermarkets and suppliers.
EurepGAP changed to GLOBALG.A.P. in February 2009, and by 2012 it is the world’s most widely implemented farm certification initiative. The GLOBALG.A.P. standard is desiged to reassure consumers about how food is produced by minimizing deterimental environmental impacts from farming, reducing the use of chemicals, and ensuring responsibility when it comes to worker health and safety and animal welfare. With the help of Blue Skies, BSOC farmers were able to acquire the necessary systems and know-how to conform to the GLOBALG.A.P. standard. Blue Skies was the first company in the world to help a collective of farmers meet GLOBALG.A.P., and it also helped them achieve organic certification by the Soil Association and the Organic Food Federation, as well as Fairtrade certification from the Fairtrade Foundation.
Blue Skies has also provided assistance to BSOC through a number of schemes. Financially, the company has given farmers loans to enable them to expand, and to also build roads to farms and pineapple collection points. Every day a Blue Skies vehicle stops at all of the collection points to pick up the days yield, which saves farmers significant time and money because they do not have to use their limited resources to transport their fruit. Technically, Blue Skies provides ongoing traning on G.A.P. (specifically with how to meet GLOBALG.A.P), and also pays for related certification and auditing costs. Moreover, Blue Skies has helped BSOC farmers achieve the prestigious Linging Environment and Farming (LEAF) certification, which helps farmers produce food with care while meeting high environmental standards. With GLOBALG.A.P., Fairtrade, and LEAF certification, BSOC farmers not only produce healthier, higher quality products, but also command a preimum on the store shelves, which ensures that the farmers receive a fair share for their efforts.
A sustainable business model has resulted in strong brands (Photo: Blue Skies)
Although Blue Skies is a commercial entity, the company does not believe that profit should come at any cost. Blue Skies therefore strives to deliver quality products that meet consumer demand in a way that has a positive impact on the people and the environment. The company refers to this approach as “sustainable business.” This model is integral to Blue Skies’ branding strategy, which is an overarching corporate image that links the importance of giving back to local communities and the environment while striving to produce high quality products. This link is built through the company’s JEE philosophy and certifications such as Fairtrade, GLOBALG.A.P., and LEAF. Blue Skies’ products have also achieved food safety standards from the British Retail Consortium and the International Food Standard. Moreover, because the company adds the value to the product at the source, rather than shipping whole fruits off to Europe and other markets for processing, up to 70% of the value of the product is returned to the country of origin. Blue Skies ensures that this is reflected in its product names, slogans, and corporate image. Through these efforts, the company has developed a strong brand that differentiates itself from the competion.
One important way in which Blue Skies connects its brand image with its customers is through unique product names, labels, and slogans. For example, in an effort to increase local sales by 20% over five years, in February 2012 the company launched exciting new lables for its freshly squeezed juice products in order to differentiate them from the many imported drinks in the Ghanaian market. The labels are designed to illustrate the simple and natural way in which Blue Skies juice is made through a colorful graphic illustrating the entire production process. The labels serve as a visual aid to explain how Blue Skies’ juice is sourced from fruit in farmers’ fields, crushed, and then squeezed into a bottle. Furthermore, the labels reflect the company’s core values, convey the company’s pride in producing their products in Ghana, and helps Blue Skies juice better compete with multinational global brands. Along with the new labels, the company also introduced a new slogan – “Revitalize the Ghanaian in You” – which emphasizes the products’ connection to the local market and a natural, healthy composition. Blue Skies’ new fruit juice lables have proved to resonate with consumers not just in Ghana, but in international markets as well. Before they were officially launched, the labels won an award for brand identity at the 2011 International Food and Beverage Awards in London, the UK.
Efforts such as the new labels and slogan are just one way in which Blue Skies has developed a strong brand. Another aspect of the company’s overall branding initiative is Caretrace, which is a website that can be used to trace the story of its products. Launched in 2007, Caretrace was specifically designed as a tool to trace Blue Skies products that are supplied to Waitrose Limited (Waitrose), a leading UK supermarket. Caretrace allows people to find out where their products come from and gives producers an opportunity to share their story, both of which Blue Skies views as fundamental rights in the consumer-producer relationship. Through Caretrace, Blue Skies provides the story of its products so people can understand the impact the products have on the environment. The company thus empowers people to make educated purchases, which contributes to conscientious shopping.
The Caretrace trademark (Photo: Blue Skies; CTM #E5333265)
Throughout its history, Blue Skies has made a great deal of effort to provide high quality products to consumers while protecting its farmers, staff, and the environment. Protecting the company’s intellectual property (IP) is one of the most effective ways in which the company has been able continue to meet these goals. To this end, Blue Skies has registered its own trademark and tapped into the strong trademarks of its certification partners. For a small company like Blue Skies, maintaining a distinguishable brand name is vital. Although the IP system is still developing in Ghana, the company has registered a community trademark for its innovative Caretrace service in the European Union (EU) through the Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market (OHIM). Beyond the corporate-owned mark, the trademarks of the company’s partners are equally important for Blue Skies and its farmers because they epitomize the company’s branding strategy. Since Blue Skies’ suppliers – local farmers – are GLOBALG.A.P., LEAF, and Fairtrade certified, all of these trademarks and certification marks can be utilized on the company’s products. With these popular worldwide marks, the link between the company’s corporate strategy of adding value at the source and its products is solidified with its customers, thus increasing Blue Skies’ brand awareness and competitive edge.
In an effort to reach out to its farmers, partners, and customers, and also to be as transparant as possible, Blue Skies publishes copyright-protected literature. The company’s annual reports (which were launched in 2009), for instance, highlight its efforts in making a sustainable business through Blue Skies’ JEE philosophy. The company also published its Sustainability Code of Practice and publishes the monthly Pelican News (a company newsletter), both of which are available on its corporate website and blog. Keeping up with the fast pace of the digital age, Blue Skies has relied on the Internet to quickly and effectively disseminate its publications and other corporate information on its registered website, blueskies.com. In addition, the company owns a domain name for Caretrace at caretrace.com. The combination of these publications and domain names has helped Blue Skies reach out to consumers throughout the world and continue to build a strong brand image.
The company also produces and sells popular fresh juices (Photo: Blue Skies)
From the outset, Blue Skies has stayed true to its commercialization formula: select only the best fruit harvested by local farmers and then process and package it at the source, without any additives, artificial flavors, or preservatives. When the company first opened its factory in Ghana, it was focused on producing prepared fruit such as sugarloaf pineapple, mango, papaya, coconut, melon, and pomegranate. After the fruit is brought from farmers, it is cut, prepared and air lifted to its destination and put on the store shelves within 48 hours of being harvested. Blue Skies’ prepared fruit has been sold in Europe since 1998, and following the success of the Ghana operation, the company opened factories in Brazil, Egypt, and South Africa to complement their main factory in Nsawam. Prepared fruit products have been the mainstay of the company’s porftolio since its inception.
As the company’s popularity grew, it started to diversify its product range to include 100% freshly squeezed fruit juice for international and local markets. The company opened a new juice factory near its Nsawam prepared fruit factory in Ghana. Similar to its prepared fruit, the company’s fruit juice contains no artifical colors, additives, or preservatives. The juice, moreover, is processed and packaged where the raw materials are sourced and then air lifted to markets throughout Europe and Africa. By 2012, the company supplies its Fairtrade, GLOBALG.A.P., and LEAF certified cut fruit and fruit juice products to seventeen major supermarkets (such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencers in the UK and Albert Heijn in the Kingdom of the Netherlands) in seven countries throughout Europe.
Over the next few years, the company plans to expand its commercial activities in Brazil in order to focus on reaching the North American and European markets. In addition, Blue Skies sells its products locally in the countries of origin, and by 2012 its fruit juice products have become particularily popular in Ghana and South Africa. Furthermore, the company’s commercialization strategy has been recognized as a model for developing countries. Blue Skies’ Ghana factory, for example, regularly receives delegations from development related agencies working throughout Africa to see company’s sustainable business model in action.
With a history of caring for the local community, Blue Skies combined its know-how and regional presence with the financial backing of its two largest partners – Waitrose and Albert Heijn – and formed the Blue Skies Foundation (the Foundation) in July 2009. The goal of the Foundation (registered as a non-profit organization in Ghana) is to empower and uplift Blue Skies’ employees, the small scale farmers that provide the raw materials, and the communities they live in by funding various social, cultural, educational, and health projects. All of the Foundation’s development initiatives are identified by the people and communities where Blue Skies and its employees, farmers, and their families live and work. Such an approach ensures that beneficiaries will receive the development projects that are of the greatest need.
The Akraman KVIP Project (Photo: Blue Skies)
In the Foundation’s short lifespan, it has already invested over 200,000 UK pound sterling (£) in a number of successful development projects. From 2009 to 2011 alone, the Foundation met its goal of completing six projects (including the implementation of new sanitary systems), all of which had a lasting impact on Blue Skies employees and their communities. In many parts of rural Ghana, toilet facilities are a luxury at home and public facilities are limited. This can lead to the easy spread of disease and other serious health complications. In the villages of Atakrom and Amanfrom in the eastern region of the country, for instance, the population of 2,000 people had no access to safe public or private toilet facilities. This led to a number of deaths from cholera in recent years, and because the region is home to six Blue Skies farmers, the company felt it was an ideal location for the Foundation to start its efforts.
The first project was the development of a Kumasi Ventilated Improved Pit (KVIP) toilet facility, which is a pit-based latrine commonly used in Ghana that collects rain water for hand-washing facilities, in the central Atakrom-Amanfrom region. KVIP facilities are designed to control odor, insects, and be easy to maintain so the prevelance of disease can be decreased. Officially opened in October 2009, the new twelve-seat facility has been a big success with the local community. Since its construction, no new cases of cholera have been reported in the region. Recognizing the importance of public sanitation facilities, in 2012 the Foundation launched two more similar projects – the construction of a twenty-seat public toilet facility for the town of Nsawam and a ten seat KVIP for the neighboring region of Akotuakrom.
The Foundation has also recognized the importance of access to quality educational facilities, which are lacking in many of the communities in which Blue Skies operates. Children were typically going to dilapidated schools, or simply attending their classes outside under trees, thus leaving them at the mercy of the elements and without acess to desks, chalkboards, or sanitation facilities. In order to change this, from 2010 to 2011 the Foundation constructed a six classroom primary school for 120 students in Akraman, Ghana, which includes an office, staff common room, and toilet facilities. Simalrily, the Foundation restored the Sekykrom Kindergarten near Nsawam to a usable condition, which included the addition of doors, windows, structural repairs, sanitation facilities, and new paint.
While the Foundation has specific goals for its develeopment projects that contribute to public health and education, the company also prides itself on its other corporate social responsibility initiatives. In 2008, Blue Skies drew upon its extensive experience in air frieght logistics and partnered with British Airways to transport 2,000 footballs donated by the Champions League to Whizzkids United (WU) – a non-governmental organization (NGO) running a youth HIV educational initiative in northern Ghana. WU is a program run by Africaid (an NGO based in the United States of America) that uses football as a fun and educational way to deliver HIV preventation, care, treatment, and support to youth throughout Africa.
A school built with the help of Blue Skies Foundation in Abortia, Ghana (Photo: Blue Skies)
In 2012, the company is also implementing its first biogas plant at its factory in Ghana. This plant takes waste from the factory and surrounding communities and converts it into energy. Not only will this help the company reduce its energy costs, but it will also improve its waste management system, which will generate compost that local farmers can use. Moreover, it will ensure that waste in the surrounding communities is properly managed, which the company hopes will lead to further reduction in waste-borne diseases. After the first biogas plant is successfully completed by the end of 2012, the company plans to implement similar plants at all of its factories over the next ten years.
At each of Blue Skies’ locations the company strives to maintain programs that assist staff, their families, and their communities with facing relevant health and safety issues. All staff members receive company-sponsored educational courses on AIDS, malaria, personal hygiene, environmental hygiene, and hepatitis. In addition, the company implemented what it refers to as a “Safe Systems of Work” that ensures job rotation when necessary and proper safety training on the handling of factory equipment. Regular health checks and free medical treatment when required is also provided to all staff, as well as free contraception and mosquito nets. With all of these initiatives, and those of the Foundation, in place, Blue Skies has made a lasting positive impact on the health and education of its employees, their communities, and the local environment.
Blue Skies’ branding strategies and public initiatives have brought the company and local communities a good deal of financial success and recognition. In 2010, the company earned £15.4 million in sales revenue from its Ghana operations, and earned another £5.4 million, £3.5 million, and £1.4 million from South Africa, Egypt, and Brazil, respectively. As of 2012, Blue Skies accounts for over 25% of Ghana’s pineapple exports and one percent of the country’s total exports. The company is also the only one in Ghana that has over 2,000 employees worldwide, and its success has allowed Blue Skies to provide some of the highest salaries available to local communities in the region. In addition to the company’s many factories(including the facility in the UK which serves to keep a temporary supply of products in case of an interruption in air-freight availability), Blue Skies’ achievements were recognized when it received The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise: Sustainable Development in 2008 and 2011. This prize is one of the UK’s most prestigious awards recognizing success in business. In addition, in April 2012 the company received the Waitrose Way Supplier Award, which recognizes suppliers that uphold the Waitrose philosophy and its principles within their supply chain.
When Mr. Pile first pioneered the idea for Blue Skies, few of his former colleagues thought it would work. However, he saw demand in Europe for fresher and healthier fruit, and with creativity, the right partnerships, and a strong brand name, the entrepreneur turned Blue Skies into a one-of-a-kind company. Relying on an air-freight transportation system, the company provides some of the freshest fruit products available, going from the farmer’s field to the store shelves in 48 hours or less. Proud to be from Ghana, Blue Skies continues down its path of sustainable business, all while benefiting local farmers, their communities, and consumers throughout the world who are looking for fresh, organic, and sustainably produced fruit.