Searching for Kwabena

Albert Heijn is the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands. In the fruit and vegetable section of many of its stores was, until recently, a poster of “Kwabena”, a Ghanaian pineapple farmer. It reads. “Doubly nice: Our fruit not only tastes nice, it also gives you a nice feeling. That’s because our growers, together with the AH Foundation, contribute to better living conditions for the local community.”

The message is clear: buy a plastic container of fresh fruit and do your bit to make the world a better place.

But what do these “better living conditions” look like? And what does “Kwabena” think of his image being used to sell pineapples in the Netherlands? The only way to find out was to ask him.

Blue Skies thinking

The search began in the hilly, fertile landscape in and around the duty-free zone in Nsawam, a town thirty kilometres north of Ghana’s capital Accra. The town hosts the factory and local headquarters of Blue Skies, a British multinational which supplies fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in Europe – including Albert Heijn. Worldwide, the company has factories in six countries (including one in Balfour in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province).

Blue Skies is owned by the entrepreneur Anthony Pile, and counts singer and self-proclaimed philanthropist Bob Geldof among its investors. It enjoys a good reputation in the development sector. By having fruits peeled, cut and packaged locally, it creates employment and adds value to the local economy: the price per kilo for fresh fruit chunks is considerably higher than for whole fruits. In Ghana, Blue Skies employs more than 1 000 people – on permanent and temporary contracts – and hundreds of day labourers.

This makes them a major employer in this area. They also buy much of the pineapples, papayas, bananas, mangos and coconuts sold by local farmers. One such farmer, Daniel Djan in the village of Fotobi, thought he recognised Kwabena’s photograph. “That’s Attakra,” he says firmly. “He lives nearby.”

But before traveling any further, we visited some of the charitable projects supported by Albert Heijn, Blue Skies and other European supermarkets (last year, Albert Heijn contributed 58 000 euros to projects in Ghana, which equals the weekly turnover of a small Dutch supermarket).

These are the projects that are supposed to “contribute to better living conditions for the local community”. But their impact is debatable.

In Fotobi, they have built three classrooms and a staff room for the school. The paint on the walls is peeling, blackboards are broken or missing, and at the time of our visit two of the three classrooms are not in use. 

In nearby Obodan, the classrooms built by the foundations look better. “This is the model school, usually with 40 to 50 children in a class,” says Ibrahim Mohammed, one of the teachers, who was sitting under a tree having lunch. “Blue Skies regularly comes here with delegations from Europe.” A photo of this school can be found on the website of Bob Geldof’s investment fund.

In Amanfrom, Blue Skies claims there is a public toilet block, used by 2,000 local residents. In reality, the building has been demolished and the government has installed better sanitation facilities. A similar toilet block is still standing in Pokrom, the village where the pineapple farmer supposedly lives. There is an overwhelming stench and ten out of twelve toilets are closed.

In a response, Blue Skies says that the Ghana Education Service and the schools themselves are responsible for maintenance, and there’s an agreement that local communities should keep the toilets clean. According to the company, the roof of the toilet block in Amanfrom was damaged during severe weather. “The government’s initiative to provide a new facility […] would unlikely have happened had we not taken the original initiative.”

The Dutch chain store buys from Blue Skies, which has a factory in Ghana. (Olivier van Beemen)

Heading to Pokrom

At market stalls along the main road in Pokrom, no one recognises Kwabena (or Attakra). “Go to the farm just outside the village. If he lives around here, they should know him.”

That farm is the giant Golden Riverside. Its manager John Akafia takes care of 600 acres of land that extends to the ridges on the other side of the valley. A tractor stands in the field in front of him, where seven field workers pick fresh pineapples for Blue Skies. 

According to Akafia, the workers earn about € 80 per month, which is substantially more than the legal minimum wage which is fixed at € 47 per month. However, in developing countries, the minimum wage is often far below subsistence level. The Global Living Wage Coalition, which includes Fairtrade International, urges employers to pay a living wage. For peri-urban areas in Ghana such as Nsawam, this should be at least 209 euros per month, the coalition has calculated.

Akafia is pleased with the partnership with Blue Skies, which started in 1999. “They have created a larger market for us. Production has increased thanks to fertilisers and the techniques we have learned.”

And Kwabena? No, unfortunately, Akafia doesn’t know him.

Not everyone has had such a positive experience with Blue Skies. After speaking with twelve former Blue Skies employees, and one current staff member, it is clear that they believe that Blue Skies could do better. A common complaint is that although factory workers earn more than twice the minimum wage, it is still not enough to cover basic necessities. Moreover, the majority of employees do not have a fixed income, but work on temporary contracts or on an on-call basis.

“The relationship between management and staff is bad,” a former manager says. He has spent 16 years with Blue Skies, leaving two years ago after he felt that his loyalty and commitment were underestimated. (Blue Skies says he underperformed and left on bad terms.) “There is a culture of fear with a lot of screaming and intimidation, but no one dares to stand up against it. That is not in our culture. At school you learn to obey, not to think independently. Employees are often told how easily replaceable they are. They are terrified to lose their jobs.” Other former workers express similar observations.

Abraham Koomson, the secretary-general of the Ghana Federation of Labour, the second-largest trade union umbrella organisation in the country, echoed these concerns. “We receive many complaints from the staff: about long working hours, health problems due to the cold in the factory, medical expenses that are not always reimbursed. They must pretend they are satisfied because they have a job at all.”

Both Blue Skies and Albert Heijn are unimpressed by the criticism from workers. Blue Skies CEO Hugh Pile said: “We go out of our way to provide the best possible working environment for our people,” citing a partially subsidised meal in the canteen, a vegetable garden on the factory site, an internet café, a library and sports facilities.

He said that coughs and colds among the staff are a result of seasonal changes in Ghana. But three local doctors confirm that the working conditions in the cold room increase the risk of diseases and infections, such as chronic bronchitis, heart complaints, disorders of the musculoskeletal system and infections of the respiratory tract. 

Blue Skies and Albert Heijn refer to a Sedex members ethical trade audit (Smeta), which gave Blue Skies a positive review. Pile claims the factory meets Fairtrade standards and has successfully passed other audits in the past.

“It is difficult to conceive that all of these diverse agencies have been repeatedly wrong in their assessments of social conditions at Blue Skies,” he said. The companies did not grant access to any of these reports, due to “the market-sensitive information” in it. 

For Maria Hengeveld, who is doing a PhD at the University of Cambridge and has extensively researched ethical labels, it is quite possible that these audits got it wrong. “Such audits function systematically the same: it’s a highly competitive sector, driven by profit and surrounded by secrecy.”

She added: “The Smeta audit is considered one of the weakest, because it doesn’t have any external checks. Even with methods reputed to be more reliable, it’s often easy for companies with major shortcomings to successfully pass an audit.”

The juice bar was constructed with Dutch public funding, and the two companies funded the construction of classrooms in Fotobi. (Olivier van Beemen)

My name is not Kwabena

There’s news from Pokrom. Attakra has been tracked down, but the meeting ends in disappointment: he is indeed a pineapple farmer, but he is not Kwabena or even a supplier for Blue Skies. 

The quest takes a surprising turn that same day, when a local representative of the Blue Skies Foundation gets in touch to say that Kwabena is not from this region at all. He lives more than three hours away in the Central Region. The proof: the pineapple he shows on the poster is not a smooth cayenne or MD2, the varieties cultivated around Nsawam, but a sugarloaf that grows over there.

Alistair Djimatey, the Blue Skies PR manager, agrees to help. But first, he offers a tour of the Nsawam factory. We see dozens of workers, mostly women, in red uniforms, who peel, cut and weigh fruit in the cold room. The bosses watch from behind windows, where the temperature is comfortable. The plastic containers already show the price in euros, including this week’s special offer: 300 grams of mango, papaya, pineapple and coconut for €2.75 instead of €3. Outside, a truck full of pineapples is being unloaded. Next to it are cargo containers from the Dutch airline KLM, designed to fit in the aircraft, under the passengers, which will fly to Amsterdam that same evening. 

The fruit has to be continuously stored in cold rooms on the way, between 0 and 5 degrees, causing high CO2 emissions. Milieu Centraal, an independent Dutch consumer organisation that advises on the sustainability of products, ranks flown-in fresh fruit in plastic containers in the category most harmful to the environment. “Don’t buy,” is the advice. Emissions for pineapples transported by ship to Europe are at least four times lower: “Good choice.” For customers it’s often guesswork anyway, because the product makes no mention of its mode of transportation.

After the visit, Djimatey shares Kwabena’s contact details. The farmer does indeed live in the Central Region, in a village called Ekumfi Nanabin. 

After a ride on mostly unpaved roads, bouncing on the reggae beats of legend Alpha Blondy from neighbouring Ivory Coast, we reach his village towards the end of the afternoon. This time, there is no doubt. Here’s the pineapple farmer who provides European customers with “doubly nice” fruit, approaching with a smile on his face.

First, however, he wants to make a correction. His name is not Kwabena, but Okwesi Johnston. His middle name is Kobena, a different way to spell Kwabena, but nobody calls him that. “I’ve let Blue Skies know my name is Okwesi a long time ago, but they have never changed it,” he says. 

Business is not going so well. “You have to eat more pineapple in Europe,” he says. His sales to Blue Skies have dropped sharply in recent years.

Nor is he aware that his photograph is being used to sell fruit in Europe. “That photo was taken about fifteen years ago. They never told me it could be used for marketing purposes and I didn’t get any money for it.”

Albert Heijn tells a different story. According to the supermarket chain, Okwesi is aware of his image being used and is “completely happy” with it. The Dutch retailer claims to have permission from Blue Skies to use the photo. 

There may yet be a happy ending for Okwesi: after hearing his story being discussed on Dutch public radio earlier this year, lawyer Bert-Jan van Manen approached the pineapple farmer, offering to file a pro-bono claim against Albert Heijn on his behalf. Okwesi agreed, and the supermarket chain and the lawyer are currently discussing a solution.

After a short visit to Okwesi’s village, we hurry to his fields to take a new picture of him and his sugarloaves before sunset. Standing in his fields, he cuts open a pineapple with a machete and lets us taste the ripe, sweet fruit. That’s a good feeling, undeniably. Maybe even doubly good.

This story was co-published with Africa is a Country.

The names of all anonymous sources are known to the editors. The travel and accommodation costs for this article have been reimbursed with a Free Press Unlimited grant. This story was originally published on the Dutch website Follow the Money. Following publication, both Albert Heijn and Blue Skies provided additional responses, which are published below.

Response from Albert Heijn:

Albert Heijn distances itself from this article, which it sees as “unsubstantiated, incorrect and one-sided” on important points. “We do not consider that the article was drawn up diligently. In no way do we recognise the image that is sketched of our supplier. We have been working together satisfactorily for twenty years, visit Blue Skies regularly and carry out independent audits. The company distinguishes itself by caring for its employees, respect for the environment and commitment to local communities. Although there are undeniable challenges to the implementation of projects by the Albert Heijn Foundation in Ghana, we know from our systematic and regular evaluations and on-site visits that the vast majority of the more than 100 projects have been successful, and satisfy a need among our supplier’s employees in Ghana and their local communities.”

Response from Blue Skies:

CEO Hugh Pile said: “We are a very open and honest organisation and have granted numerous studies into how we operate and our impact. Researchers have the freedom to enter our facilities and speak to our staff without intervention. We allow this because we are confident in the integrity of our business, but we accept fair criticism where it is due and we always listen to recommendations for how we can improve. Our people are the heart and soul of Blue Skies. We have a culture based on the principles of fairness and trust. We work openly together, freely share ideas and concerns, and respect one another regardless of gender, age, colour, creed or rank. This is the true Blue Skies. It is a business that our people have passionately worked to build over the past 23 years and which aims to bring positive benefits to the communities around us.”

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Olivier van Beemen
Olivier van Beemen is an investigative reporter and the author of Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2019).

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