For several months a year in Sierra Leone, pineapples and mangoes fall from trees by the tonnes. But without an easy route to market or efficient storage facilities, they are often left to rot, with the growers eking out a subsistence on what little they can sell by the roadside or in local markets.
In 2013, Hamza Hashim set about creating an organic juice company as a way to reduce waste and give farmers better livelihoods. “I wanted to democratise juice,” he says.
A few years later and Sierra Juice has become one of the country’s most ubiquitous brands. With more than 5,000 farmers supplying fresh produce to the company, its drinks are sold by formal and informal vendors at virtually every traffic jam and street corner in the country.
‘Shelf-life was a major issue’
As a cacao trader in 2012, Hashim would regularly make the four-hour journey between Kenema, in the east of the country, and the capital Freetown, and saw the huge difference in price and availability of fresh fruit between the rural areas and the city.
“At Taima junction, we would buy baskets of 10 pineapples for 10,000 leones (around $2 at the time). But in Freetown, a single pineapple would cost 15,000 leones, and that’s if you could find one at all.”
Hashim and his cousin experimented by hiring a six-wheeled truck and filling it with fresh pineapples, which they took to Freetown and started selling to the market traders. By the third day produce was starting to rot. “There wasn’t any cold storage in the city – electricity was too unreliable and expensive. Shelf life was this huge issue. So I started looking at juice as a way to process and preserve the fruit.”
Lacking the capital to start processing on a large enough scale, Hashim and his cousin spent months applying for all the funding opportunities they could find. Eventually, they secured $800,000 from Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, but couldn’t start production until mid-2016, due to difficulties getting equipment into the country because of the Ebola pandemic.
Getting the word out
“When we started, everyone told me I would fail. No-one was drinking juice in Freetown, except for a few expensive imported juices in the supermarkets. On the street, vendors were selling cheap knock-off colas at a far lower price point than we could offer.”
Initially, Sierra Natural Juice proved difficult to sell. “People were afraid of trying something new. So we started going to restaurants and retailers dropping off free crates of drinks, giving out product on credit. We lost a lot of money, because some people never paid us back, but it got our name out there. People liked it, and retailers started calling us back, asking for more.”
For the first couple of years, the company…
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