In our series of videos focused on private businesses and entrepreneurs, founder and Chairman of Blue Skies Holdings, Anthony Pile, talks to us about getting off a plane in Africa with £400,000 in his pocket determined to set up this social enterprise.
Blue Skies has been cutting and packing consistently high quality just-harvested fruit products and delivering them to supermarkets across Europe since 1998. Employing over 2000 people in Ghana, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil, this multi-award winning social enterprise is committed to building long term partnerships, and fostering sustainable development in Africa and South America. By nurturing this culture and forging global partnerships Blue Skies has become an ethical model for development to governments all over the world.
In this video, Anthony tells us about getting others to buy in to his vision, the challenges he faced and his top tips for anybody looking to set up a social enterprise in developing countries.
Blue Skies is a company which manages to get 20 to 30 tonnes of fruit salad by air into the markets of Europe every day. Interesting time when we started the business and you stepped off that aircraft and were hit by that great waft of hot air as if you had put your head inside an oven, a very humid oven as well, because just for a moment you said what on earth have you done, how come you find yourself .. I had just been fired actually from my last job, I was 50 and my wife would say well what are you going to do next so she packed me off and I found myself standing at the top of the steps with this great waft of air flowing all over me and I walked down the steps and it’s daunting to begin with but somehow you have an idea which you are determined to see through, you through necessity, and I think actually necessity really is the mother of an awful lot of things and certainly entrepreneurial activity and through necessity you go and face the various challenges. Of course the big one in any circumstance like this is simply making it work and to make it work you have got to have a market and that meant persuading somebody in Sainsbury’s who would actually support the idea and I have to say I met a kindred spirit there back in London who was prepared to give this silly idea I had about flying fresh from harvest fruit half way across the world to the consumers breakfast table and thought it was a good idea and I also had great support from British Airways who were prepared to use up that space that’s underneath the bottom, so all the passengers who were flying back and forwards from West Africa, again were to good advantage, but more important, I had something which maybe came from a military background, maybe it came from not wanting to ever have anybody say no to me, which enabled me to find the land, find the money, find the support, find the fruit, find the idea manifest itself in terms of the factory and make it all happen.
Walking into a country, very much a country which would be recognised by many of the people who travel to West Africa or any part of Africa perhaps today, where there is need, there is poverty, there is a desperate wish to catch up and of course the mobile telephone, the television, the satellite systems simply serve to exacerbate that great gap there is between those over there in the Western World who have it and we in the less satisfactory arrangement in this part of the developing World don’t have it. And of course then you have that zeal and so there’s a certain amount of straw clutching going on immediately and if a straw turns up in the guise of a clapped out old Englishman who reckons he can make something work in Africa then you clutch at it so I found no negativity at all from the local people wanting to join in. It was very important that I used our joint effort enterprise to really put at ease people, that this wasn’t some new colonial experiment which was about to take place, this was something real, this was something which we believed would work and all we needed was for you to hold hands with us and we would move forward together and try and make it happen so very, very easy. The difficulty was with people when you are trying to make things work, is actually with the intellectual, the intelligent, the educated, the suit, the tie person who very often knows it all and wants to work, he’s already getting a very good salary, wants to work to standards that are perhaps prevalent to the Western World, but is actually located in the developing world, the bankers dare I say it. Sometimes there is a difficulty there, sometimes with accountants, sometimes with property developers and so on and so on, the professionals, the lawyers, there we sometimes had a difficulty but dealing with people who wanted to make it work, the farmers, the eager young faces that wanted to come to the factory etc no problem.
If I had to work out what top three tips there might be for somebody wishing to develop a social enterprise of this sort is have you actually got a commitment, a will, a desire to make this happen because if you have you’re in for an awful lot of fun, it is going to be so rewarding you won’t believe it, and it’s not from the point of view of making money because I am going to say something that’s going to be challenging in itself, actually do you really need more money than you need if you follow the twisted way I put it, in life you actually need a lot more, you need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and say alright mate, it’s worth doing, having another go at this and I think we also have a little bit of steeliness in this which make up for my military background and I have to apologise for my military background but there is that little something in us which enables us to not take no for an answer, and then if you are joining ranks with people who really actually are going to enjoy your company and make it work with you, then I think you’ve got something special there. A third one? I suppose you have to be able to always recognise that the product has to be a winner and I would say it’s important to have one that’s unique. There are lots of products out there, they are coming out all the time. One of the great advantages in Blue Skies I think is that we tend to go for the unique product, we like the products which nobody has done before. They can be challenging and they can call on all those various strengths that I have just been referring to but the fact is they tend to give you a head start. Of all the ideas behind you, don’t worry about them, just go for the next one that hasn’t been thought of before.