Joyce Atuhaire Onegwa, the owner of Athari Adventures Limited.  PHOTO/ JOAN SALMON


Highs and lows of exporting dried fruits, vegetables

What you need to know:

Joyce Atuhaire Onegwa started packaging dried fruits and vegetables in 2019. While she wanted to earn an extra buck, she also provided  a market to farmers to reduce post-harvest losses.

In 2016, Joyce Atuhaire Onegwa, Salma Dusman, Edson Twinamatsiko under Athari Adventures Limited enjoyed the market, aggregating and selling fresh fruits and vegetables to exporters who later sold them to the European market. Back then, they racked in amazing profits. They also worked with several out growers in Kayunga and Luweero coupled with growing their own fruits and vegetables. These included chillies, mangoes, apple bananas, tomatoes, jackfruit, Okra, pineapples and onions.  

However, in 2016/17, there was a self-imposed ban by Uganda on exports of fresh fruits and vegetables to Europe.

“It was as a result of many export consignments being destroyed as they were ridden with chemical residues, pests such as False Codling moth. In addition to that, the produce endured poor post-harvest handling which hampered its quality,” she says.

Onegwa, who is also the managing director of Athari Adventures says that the ban was meant to organise the sector and control the effects of the possible ban from Europe. It was also to manage the situation so that Uganda can return to the market.
In that process, their company made huge losses having grown so much, even from their out growers. However, with many people’s livelihoods depending on this venture, it was not time to mop but rethink of a comeback strategy.

Dried pineapples. Dried products are sold in schools and to exporters. They have also started selling to Democratic Republic of Congo.

“That called for finding ways to manage our product quality as well as post-harvest handling issues. We would continue in the same space but with a different output. We decided to do a survey among our farmers on what is grown in huge quantities, where we could get that produce from as well as what was cheap yet in plenty,” Onegwa shared.

This process of testing and trying to recover which also involved selling some of the produce locally took them a year.
“2018 was given to recovery and we resumed business in 2019. After consultations, Athari Ventures Limited zeroed in on growing, aggregating, drying and selling of fruits and vegetables; eliminating a few of the past. The new product list is comprised of chillies, mangoes, pineapples, apple bananas and tomatoes,” she shares.
Uganda has the best pineapples and hottest chillies so their only challenge then was to find out if the market would welcome the dried variation.

“We tested the market and found that though dried fruits and vegetables are not a common phenomenon, it would work as the venture and is slowly getting embraced,” she says.
Onegwa says she wanted to be in a business that would impact the farmer, especially the women outgrowing these crops.
During the journey, Onegwa joined African Women in Agri-business Network (AWAN) in need of mentorship. Some of the members are big exporters of dry fruits taking to various destinations so it was the ideal place.

“I was mentored by some women exporters who taught me several aspects such as things proper drying, post drying processes, slicing, pricing,” she says.

Along the way, in 2019, Onegwa became the chairperson of the network.

Joyce Atuhaire Onegwa, the managing director of Athari Adventures Limited packages dried tomatoes. PHOTOS/JOAN SALMON

Second start
With field work done, it was time to put the hands on the plough and she says it was not easy.

“Though the machinery was not costly, the issue was finding out if we could make it locally.

Assured that all would go well, we dug into our savings from the previous year to purchase raw materials (food grade rubber nets, wood and transparent polythene) to make two solar dryers at Shs2.5m each. These were then installed in Kayunga Market. The location was informed by the fact that the raw materials (pineapples) are mainly there with a farm as well as out growers (200) in Kayunga,” she says.

With Shs10m at hand, the establishment used the rest to set the ball rolling - Shs2.5m to buy the initial fruits while the remaining Shs2.5m was used in getting workers, transport and setting up.

One of the challenges on the journey was adoption because Ugandans think they are having enough fruits hence see no reason to embrace dried fruits.

Onegwa says the preconceived abundance is not true because while some parts of the country have plenty, others are in lack. “Apart from getting the existing to adopt dried fruits, they also needed to get into new markets which was somewhat tricky,” she says.

The transition also meant helping the establishment’s employees to get ready for the shift. That called for training them to move to handling, drying and packing.

“There were extra hygiene measures that we needed to see to ensure the safety of our consumers,” she says.

On the flip side, the farmers were not only excited to be back on board but were also assured of market for all their produce throughout the year. With drying happening throughout the year, produce was never in excess and they were assured of the same price regardless of the season.

“We have standard prices throughout the year. Otherwise, they will sell to other people yet we have invested in form of training, giving them input. That makes them loyal and accountable while it improves their income,” she says.

Ensuring that there are fruits and vegetables in and out of season is a challenge. However, when in season, Onegwa says they dry as much as they can get.
“Since dried produce has a life span of 12 months, we can store to meet the needs of our consumers,” she says.
The challenge is packaging which they buy from an importer and they are costly.

“That affects our pricing because we must incorporate that cost into the final price,” she says.

A 200g packet of chillies goes for Shs12,000 while a kilogramme costs Shs60,000. That price is the same for all the products.
These dried products are sold on the local market, in schools, to exporters and have also started selling to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

80 percent of the establishment’s suppliers are women, something Onegwa is deliberate about and extends this to the top management.

“Empowering women is at my heart and being able to do it is a major highlight of this journey thus looking out for qualified women to help the establishment in its running. Even the trainings are done for women only so they can get into this space since we also know that women will always share the acquired knowledge with the entire family,” she says.

Joyce Atuhaire Onegwa and Salma Dusman with some of their dried fruits. PHOTOS/JOAN SALMON

Onegwa says this transition journey has exposed her because wherever she goes with this produce, people want to talk to her about it.

Athari adventure ltd has also made some money because at one time, they made a single sale worth Shs100m.

This value addition journey has also attracted funders such as TechnoServe, and PSFU. “Therefore, we not looking back,” she says.

Three years from now, Onegwa says Athari adventure ltd should be the biggest exporter of dried fruits and vegetables in Uganda.

They also want to tap into the European market. Therefore, the plan this year is for two of the to travel to Europe and Dubai to bench mark as well as get a better understanding of the market.

They hope to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that will see Athari Adventure Limited take 10 tonnes of their produce per month.