Inside the ethical Corby fruit factory helping support communities across Africa
To anyone passing by, Blue Skies might look like an ordinary food manufacturing site like the many others that have sprung up across Corby during the past 30 years.
But the factory in Saxon Way East will be used on Monday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to exemplify how the UK can increase trade with African nations in a sustainable and symbiotic way.
Baroness Elizabeth Sugg visited the Corby factory today (Friday, January 17) ahead of a UK-Africa investment summit being hosted by Mr Johnson on Monday in London that will be attended by heads of state from across the continent.
Blue Skies, founded in 1997 by Anthony Pile, has factories at the heart of where its fruit is grown - in Ghana, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil. Its UK sites are in Northamptonshire, with packing operations in Senegal and the Ivory Coast. The firm employs more than 4,000 people in peak season, supplying 220 fresh fruit products including mango, pineapple, papaya and kiwi to customers across Europe, the middle east and Africa.
It supplies major supermarkets including Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi and Carrefour.
The firm is built on a 'waste nothing' model - meaning after its fruit is cut in Africa the leftover edible products are turned into juices, fresh fruit ice lollies and dairy-free ice creams. Peel and skin is used to produce rich compost that is then used by local farmers.
It has an emphasis on value-added products, with the majority of fruit processing done where it is grown so that more profits are returned to the very communities that produce the fruit.
But it also places importance on ensuring its staff are happy at work and have good scope for career development. In its Ghanaian operation there is a clinic, a library, shower facilities and sporting activities on offer. It's Ghanaian workforce is paid more than 300% above the national minimum wage and it has no gender pay gap.
Across its worldwide operations, five of its ten general managers are women, including in Corby where Sabine Hill runs the operation.
Their successful Blue Skies Foundation has invested £1.5m in projects to help more than 100,000 people in its local communities. It has built classrooms, toilets and playgrounds and supported clinics and training for farmers.
Mr Pile, who spent his early years in the army, said that it is vital to him that his company is a 'family'. He said: "We're more than just a factory. The Ghanaian factory is like a campus."
He called on the government to encourage businesses to make value-added products in the countries that produce the raw materials and to provide grants for enterprises to open access to new markets.
He said: "We are not importing enough from Africa. They have more committed and closely-aligned labour than, for example, in China.
"There's so, so much more we can do out there.
"Every person employed in Africa supports another ten people so we're helping to support about 30,000 people out there which is quite something."
He said that the company had embraced the new vegan market. "The one thing you have to have is excellence," he said.
"It mustn't just be vegan or dairy-free, it also has to taste bloody good."
The company is about to embark on building a large factory in Benin, West Africa.
Most of the Corby employees are workers from Poland, Romania, Luthuania and Latvia. The factory moved from its former base in Kent two years ago and about 70 per cent of the workers moved along with them.
There is concern that Brexit may make it more difficult for them to be supported in the UK. Corby has already seen a rapid drop-off in the number people who come to the town looking for factory work from Eastern Europe.
Many of the Corby staff been concerned about their status in the UK following the outcome of the EU referendum so the firm has provided them with support and has helped them apply for settled status in the UK.
Baroness Elizabeth Sugg, who sits in the house of lords and is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, had a skype call with two female general mangers from Ghana and Senegal during her visit today. Baroness Sugg said: "The fact this company is profitable and yet does so much work to ensure the well-being of its employees shows that you can do both.
"It was great speaking to the factory managers out there. The more we can invest in women, the more you can see the absolutely huge benefits, both here in Corby and in Africa.
"It's a win, win. We are helping Africa build its economy and we are benefiting in the UK too.
"Africa has eight of the 15 fastest growing economies. Speaking to people working for Blue Skies in Africa has shown me just how much difference a firm like this can make in these communities."
Corby MP Tom Pursglove said that he was aware of the worries of factory owners over the lack of post-Brexit European labour He said: "We have an enormous range of manufacturing here in Corby. It's important we get our future immigration policy right but it also needs to be skills-based.
"We are going to be led by the evidence and the skills requirements for our manufacturing industries."