Sierra Leone is only just picking up after 11 years of civil war, but that has not discouraged Aston MBA grad Claudio Scotto from setting up the country's first fruit juice manufacturing plant.
Only six years ago the West African nation was bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, but amid the power cuts and potted roads, Claudio's plant is up and running, and exporting juice to Germany!
Africa Felix Juice processes pineapple and mango concentrate for export. The manufacturing plant located in Six Mile Village, about 40km from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, can process 60 tonnes of fruit per day.
Claudio’s venture has attracted global attention. He has received a lot of media attention including being featured on CNN programme Marketplace Africa. The Dutch government also issued Africa Felix a conditional grant to help fund the venture.
The company operates in a special economic zone set up by First Step, a commercial subsidiary of the US NGO World Hope International. First Step discovered that many farmers in Sierra Leone struggle to profit from their fresh produce and a large quantity of fruit were unsold or was left rotting on the ground.
BusinessBecause chatted to Claudio over the phone. As he chatted he was also getting his hair cut at the barber in the Hilton Hotel Abuja. Claudio is of Italian and Swiss German heritage and still maintains an interest and close relationships with the energy sector, having worked as sales manager for Western Europe for Canusa-CPS, a global pipeline manufacturer.
He also has manufacturing industry expertise, which came in useful for Africa Felix: he worked as a major account manager at Nacco Materials Handling Group immediately after completing his MBA at Aston University in 2000.
So, why did Claudio choose to set up a business in Sierra Leone? He replies: “Simply because I married a woman from that country”. Claudio’s wife is Sierra Leonian and the couple met and married in London several years ago. They have a son together who has remained in London with his mother, where the family lived before Africa Felix took off.
Africa Felix began operations in May 2011 but a lot of work and preparation went on behind the scenes before that. Claudio says “ I went up and down for six years while still keeping my job in the UK and spent all my free time in Sierra Leone trying to set this up.”
I ask Claudio if he feels Sierra Leone is ready for such a grand venture and he replies that all his friends think he’s crazy but “I’ve put everything into this and I’m determined to make it a success”.
“My strong belief is that if nobody acts then Africa will never improve. I have to face the typical constraints of doing business in a place where the economy is just starting off but I’m confident we can show that things move here in Africa and in ten years time, I won’t be the only one doing something like this”, he adds.
All of Claudio’s fruit suppliers are local and he’s been happy with the level of professionalism he’s encountered with the locals, but he’s still trying to get the farmers to think on a larger scale. “When local farmers come to me and say hey, I have a lot of mangoes, I’m thinking 30 tonnes but when I get there I see half a tonne and this quantity only takes the machines ten minutes to process!”, he says.
The low level of productivity of Sierra Leonian farmers in comparison to those in other markets such as Asia and South America is one of the challenges Claudio has to face. The lack of electricity is another one. The Africa Felix plant has to run on generators all the time and this is incredibly expensive.
But being an eternal optimist, Claudio can see the bright side of things. Africa Felix got Fair Trade certified in November 2011 so farmers will be able to use the additional income to increase productivity. The company is in the process of becoming organic certified because farmers are so poor that they cannot even afford fertilizers or pesticides anyway.
Finally, Claudio is looking into developing a scheme that can turn the mango seeds which are very rich in oil into a bio fuel energy source that his plant can run on, in order to save on electricity and cut down on waste.
He says his business knowledge and experience in manufacturing has helped. Its also clear that his vision, determination and hard work are generating results. Africa Felix made its first shipment to German buyers in December 2011 so by March this year, German homes will have fresh and sweet tasting juice from Sierra Leone.
Claudio has relationships with key bottlers in Europe but he also sees possibilities in West African countries such as Guinea, Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. He recently signed a deal with a customer in Burkina Faso and now has to battle with how to transport the juice concentrate from Sierra Leone to Burkina Faso. There is no direct shipping route or motorway between these countries and importing juice into Burkina Faso has never happened before.
Having spoken with Claudio, I get the impression that he probably already has a plan to work around this problem. And this intrepid entrepreneur has plenty of optimism for West Africa. He ends the conversation by telling me that the future of business in West Africa will be a high speed train line and motorway from Dakar, Senegal to Lagos, Nigeria.