In our series of videos focused on private businesses and entrepreneurs, founder and Chairman of Blue Skies Holdings, Anthony Pile, talks to us about the culture, identity and values of the social enterprise that he’s created.
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 how Blue Skies began with his vision to crush poverty in Africa and how the farmers they work with, alongside their families and their communities have come together to create a competitive edge that creates benefits for all.
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. Blue Skies has a culture which enables us to operate in Africa. Very important, it’s one which we’ve carefully fashioned and it’s allowed people to be and feel socially equal so you don’t get any of this sort of ex-pats and so on telling you how it should be done and enjoying a better salary package than everybody else, we are all on a level footing. Of course in a manufacturing environment you have a hierarchy and within that hierarchy you have bosses. Being Blue Skies we have as many women in boss jobs as we have men in boss jobs so it’s extended this whole notion of equality is extended the right way through the workforce. In terms of making the culture work for the company, it has had an amazing magnetic effect on the retailers of Europe who are not just interested in having the finest and best, freshly cut and fresh from harvest fruit, but also actually want to have a good pedigree with the company that supplies them. So when they walk into any one of our premises, whether it be Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal or wherever, they immediately get this feel of a family of togetherness, of wanting to make something work and having a clear focus because actually everybody wants to make it work.
When you’ve got everybody pulling in the same direction, competition watch out. You then of course have a product in our case which competitively is unmatched in the world, nobody else has a network of factories supplying utterly fresh from harvest, fresh cut products to the retailers and consumers within 36 hours. It puts us absolutely ahead and one final thing, most people you talk to and most businesses you talk to in this field, will not be close to the farmer. We are close to the farmer, we are with our farmers so we know them all, we know their families, we know their problems and we help them, we are there for the long run with them.
It has had an extraordinary effect on bringing people together and because it’s recognised as being something that employs a lot of people. We’re not dependent upon machinery so the impact is felt in a very human way, which after all is the only way when you think about trying to find solutions for developing countries.
An affinity of Ghana actually is very much the model which we have at all our six sites and we have there for example a football area, we have a keep fit – a very active keep fit – team and club, but we have most importantly a restaurant which feeds something like 2,000 people a day and that’s an awful lot of people now working at the Ghana factory. And like all of these sort of communities, if you look at the town, the local town, you won’t find a library there, you won’t find any parkland there, it’s just sprawling concrete and really very little else, so people come early to work. We don’t have a clocking in system because we actually don’t believe in the clocks, we don’t have hoots and sirens and horns to make people go to work, people actually use self-discipline to get there themselves and if they don’t turn up for work Mavis will say how come you didn’t turn up for work today Sheila, and then there’s a problem between them, but there is also an internet café we’re all the time allowing people to stretch their legs, stretch their minds and reach out to the information that’s available around the world and we have a good old library that, believe it or not, there are no libraries in Ghana, well not libraries of the sort that you and I understand. A library for example in many universities you would expect to see but not one in the local town. And we have a parkland where many of the young people meet their matches often for life, and so again it’s encouraged, it’s a way of life, it’s a community activity and I think it works very well. Now of course that’s on the level of the staff themselves, outside in the business community there is a very different sort of situation. We are for example now, just after 17 years, the largest employer in terms of people in the private sector which is really quite remarkable when this country is such a large one, almost the size of the United Kingdom, but of course has an economy that is very much more embryonic.
Blue Skies is a company which regards the development of people as very important. If you are going to beat that animal, that devil, poverty, then you have got to actually enable people, you’ve got to lift them, you’ve got to give them hope and I think Blue Skies does that by paying people round about 3 to 4 times the minimum wage at the lowest level you automatically introduce discretionary income into the equation and that discretionary income will be used for education or it might be used to buy a car, or maybe just to improve the living conditions that people find themselves in, but very often it goes into education and there’s a great thirst for education in Ghana. Young people want to see as much bolted on to their knapsack as possible so they can go out and make a difference in the world.
Near the top, if not at the top, would be value adding at source. Now what on earth do I mean by value adding at source? Well let’s take Ghana for example, Ghana is a country which has abundant minerals, it has cocoa but they don’t make chocolate, the cocoa goes to a large organisation in the Netherlands which makes it into something that resembles chocolate and then it goes to a chocolatier in Belgium or Cadbury’s or wherever, and is made into those things that we recognise whether it be Easter eggs or whatever. But it is the same story with rice, it’s the same story with gold, it’s the same story with diamonds, certainly the same story with oil which they’ve just found. So how actually looking at it through socially sensitive eyes, that you can help to crush poverty more than any other way and I believe that actually value adding at source is certainly a very significant way. What do I mean? Taking the raw material, taking it through its various stages and in our case that means harvesting it, helping the farmers to get to that point, taking it to the factory, cutting it up into pieces that suit the various retailers of Britain and Europe then putting it into a pack, sealing it, checking that it’s absolutely correct, putting the label on it, putting the price on it and putting, if you like, the promotional information on it like buy one, get one free. Everything goes on it. You’ve now done the whole lot, all the retailer has got to do is take it out the box and plonk it on the shelf. That’s value adding at source and it means that of course the margin goes back to the country from which it all emirated and that makes a lot of sense because you then have a fast growing economy around and you start enabling people to do things, because when you bring in a lot of cash, and we pay our staff something like £3-3.5bn a year, just goes into one local village and town, you can image the impact of that, the money goes swilling around. It isn’t lost ever, it is actually coming in all the time, more and more foreign currency translated into local currency and of course it buys clothing, education, food, cars, it buys everything and then it is used again so you’re actually helping to develop other industries and other bits and pieces which are important to that community – palpable, very, very powerful.
What’s next for Blue Skies? Well that’s always the exciting thing isn’t it. Where do we go next? You know the words Blue Skies came from the guy who fired me from my last job before I set up my own business. He said to me what you want is some blue skies thinking. So it’s all about thinking and Blue Skies would certainly like to roll out into more factories, more parts of the world, more interesting products and to serve the consumers of Europe and why not the consumers of America. So we are looking at the United States, we’re looking East as well and we’re looking at more and more in Europe. We were the first into all the countries I can think of, certainly south of the channel, and there are a lot more countries that we are adding on almost daily, look at the incident situation in the Ukraine at the moment, to Europe. I think the opportunities are bound both in terms of the market, in terms of geography from where you can do it and definitely in terms of products, we’ve got some really good ideas coming through.