August Issue 2009
Interview: Sher Ghazi, CEO Mountain Fruits
By Mariya Karimjee | Business | People | Q & A | Published 14 years ago
“God has given us clean, natural protected sites to grow organic foods but, unfortunately, they are being used as battlefields instead of organic fields” — Sher Ghazi
A broken pick-up, a generator, discarded furniture, a computer and a printer from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and a modest sum of two million rupees were the only resources that Sher Ghazi possessed when he decided to turn his dream of launching an improved apricot drying project to reality. Today, he is the CEO of Mountain Fruits (Pvt Ltd), the only fruit-production company in Pakistan to sell organic, Fairtrade apricots.
Ghazi worked with the AKRSP for 13 years after graduating in Food Technology from the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. Today, Mountain Fruits exports organic walnuts, almonds and dried apples to Fairtrade markets in Europe along with the distinctly flavoured Hunza apricots. He dreams of bringing more farmers under the Fairtrade umbrella to aid them in securing international markets and preventing over-payment to agents.
Q: A notable thing about Mountain Fruits is that it is certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO). How do you maintain your certification and what problems, if any, does the company face?
A: Fair trade is an ethical business that is aimed at the socio-economic development of small producers and workers. In a Fairtrade certified business, the Fairtrade organisation, farmers and the company itself, agree upon a minimum price, which is always higher when compared to what other companies pay their workers. Only those companies that continually fulfil the required FLO standards are certified. Fair trade gives opportunities to small and marginalised producers to sell their products in an international and high-value market.
Being Fairtrade-certified also means that ILO conventions on child labour, forced labour, bonded labour and other human rights issues are met in addition to the social development agenda for the small farmers. Fairtrade not only ensures a minimum cost, covering the price and providing a sustainable market for the contracted producers, but also pays the farmers back a fair trade premium that is used to cover the socio-economic development of the producers.
Q: You run the first local fruit processing company to hire women. What prompted that decision, and in which other ways do you empower women at Mountain Fruits?
A: I have been inspired by the mission of His Highness the Aga Khan and the services of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). I wanted to pursue the same philosophy of empowering women in society, and train them in the improved method of drying apricots so that they could increase their earnings. We employ 60 to 100 women in the factory, paying them the minimum wage (Rs 6,000 per month).
A food factory needs technical staff along with the labourers and, often, it is hard to find trained and skilled women. I didn’t want to have the men and women work together in the same area in the culturally restrictive environment that exists in Gilgit. Instead, we selected some educated women and trained them in computers and processing so that they could work as supervisors.
One of these women, Ms Shahina, is currently training in food technology at the Karakoram International University in Gilgit. We are trying to send her to the UK for a short training course in food processing in our partner’s company, where she will mainly learn how to hygienically process the food. I also want her to go to the UK for practical training in further products development. Currently, we do not hire women during winter or during the off-season — but by training Ms Shahina, we can work during the off-season by producing fruit bars and candy, and thus employ women throughout the year.
Q: Your products are organic, which can be both difficult and expensive to produce. What does it mean to you to have certified, organic produce?
A: Organic certification costs Rs 320,000 per year. This is an international fee and covers the expense of international consultants to do the social auditing of our company. We pay this amount because our company needs to be a transparent and socially audited company.
Personally, I love organic foods because I know the ill effects of agrichemicals on our health. Organic produce has very high value in a developed society; this certificate guarantees that a product with an organically certified logo has no agrichemicals and is 100% free from all preservatives.
Q: The basic structure of Mountain Fruits involves organising small farmers to help increase their income. How do you select individual farmers? Do you train the farmers as well?
A: Fairtrade is open to everyone without discrimination, but a company must have the ability/expertise to organise small-scale, marginalised and disadvantaged producers looking for guidance. Mountain Fruits is willing to invest time and resources to bring change and development in these farming communities. We want them to have the skills to develop an internationally acceptable product.
At Mountain Fruits, we do not only train the male and female producers but we also distribute the materials farmers require to dry the fruits. Originally they were using pieces of old cloth or stones and mud roofs, which is definitely not hygienic. So, we provide them with wooden trays to dry the fruits so that they may be of export quality, on interest-free credit. We recover the amount later when these farmers sell the dried fruits (the end product) to our company. So far, we have distributed 23,000 fruit drying trays among farmers on credit.
Q: Do you feel that more companies in Pakistan should implement fair trade policies?
A: All Asian Fairtrade producers are members of the Network Asia Producers (NAP), which attempts to promote the sale of Fairtrade products in developed markets of the world. As the Pakistan director for NAP, I have invited companies in Pakistan to register themselves as Fairtrade. Unfortunately, under the current system, industrialists do not have the requisite government support in their facilities; they’re struggling to survive. Fairtrade demands a social agenda for the development of the producers or hired labour. Nobody is ready to do that.
Q: Many have supported the movement to use GM Foods to feed the world. Do you think that arbitrary distinctions such as “Fairtrade” and “organic” make a difference in a country like Pakistan?
A: Well, when you are in trouble, you have to survive even by eating grass. Thank God that today we at least have wheat in the market, regardless of whether it is GM or full of chemicals. Most people have no idea of the pesticide residue we take in each day when we buy fresh vegetables in the market. Unfortunately in Pakistan, we are fighting for our survival. In such conditions, if we do not grow GM foods, we should at least attempt to grow more hybrids with high production potential.
God has given us clean, natural protected sites to grow organic foods but, unfortunately, they are being used as battlefields instead of organic fields. We can earn higher incomes by producing organic rice, cotton, sugar and fruits to sell in the international market.
Q: Do you believe that farmers have a responsibility to produce organic foods in order to minimise the ill effects of agrichemicals?
A: Yes, but it is the duty of the government to support them, provide them with opportunities. You can find bread for Rs 2 in some parts of the Punjab, but in the rest of the country it is for Rs 10. Is this a policy for sustainable development? No. We are far behind in the world and still drowning speedily.