Born from a love of gift giving, and a desire to ‘showcase Ghana to the world’, The Copper Fruit is a small, family-run business based in Surrey. It’s headed up by Yaa, with the help of her mum.
“Myself and my mum love giving gifts”, Yaa told us. “And I know to some people it might seem a bit trivial, or a bit basic, but gift giving really is about making somebody else happy. And it doesn’t need to be something ostentatious, it can be something small, I think it’s really the thought that counts.”
When it comes to showcasing Ghana to the world, for The Copper Fruit, this comes from multiple angles. Their ‘Made in Ghana’ collection includes hand-woven bags and baskets from a Ghanaian run women’s cooperative in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana, which currently provides ad hoc work for around sixty women and ten men. But there’s also Ghana-made furoshiki (reusable cloth wrapping paper), canvas prints, and more.
We caught up with Yaa to hear all about how The Copper Fruit started, and to get her advice on building a socially conscious brand — as well as some all-important tips on how to work with overseas suppliers.
The start of an idea
Yaa was born and raised in the UK, and her parents are both from Ghana. She spent a few years living in Ghana in her early thirties, which is when she really got to experience the full scope of life there. Going alone, rather than with a family group, meant she was truly immersed in the Ghanaian way of life, learning how to go back to basics, be patient when things didn’t work, and also having the opportunity to meet some incredibly talented makers along the way.
“There are so many different talented people that you just meet in Ghana. I knew that I wanted to showcase Ghana to the world; the actual country itself, the way people do things, the food that people eat, and equally, the things people can make. I knew that I maybe wanted to sell something, but I wasn’t quite sure at first.”
A chance meeting on the beach
It was some time later, on a group holiday in Ghana, when a chance encounter on a beach brought this idea back to the forefront of Yaa’s mind.
“We met a gentleman called Isaac, who runs a cooperative in the north of Ghana”, she explained. “It was my cousin’s wife who met him on the beach where he was selling all his woven items, and because she didn’t have her purse with her, she said come back to where we’re staying. And I was already there, so I met him and I was just amazed because he had quite a number of items, and they were beautifully made, and he was such an earnest guy. His town was probably about a 12 hours’ drive… for him to make that journey to come down and sell his things, I thought, here’s a dedicated young man. He said he’d really like to sell his products abroad, and as that was something I’d been thinking about, I said let me think about it, and I took his details.”
The Copper Fruit’s first product
Armed with Isaac’s contact details, Yaa returned home to Surrey — just as the Covid pandemic first hit the UK. Shielding and working a busy NHS role, she started drawing and designing as a way to decompress, creating designs that would go on to become The Copper Fruit’s core wrapping paper range.
“It was always inspired by my experiences of being in Ghana… so it’s not classically African, it’s just little bits that bring me fond memories. So for example we have this paper that’s really popular, it’s called the Superstar and it’s this kind of dark navy blue with golden stars, and they reminded me of the night sky in my mum’s hometown in Ghana. It’s one of the few places you can actually see the stars so brightly. It’s beautiful.”
Yaa decided to start selling her wrapping paper, hoping that it would generate enough interest for her to be able to take on some of Isaac’s products, too. It was a big success.
Working with the cooperative
The northern part of Ghana — where the cooperative is based — is particularly arid, and very very dry, so not many crops are able to grow there.
“They have a lot of natural resources, and because the climate is so dry they have to be very particular about what is a byproduct or a waste product that might enter the ecosystem. As someone who really does value the fact that we’re trying to work towards managing and limiting the effects of climate change, that was really important to me. A lot of their products are handwoven, and made using sustainable materials which are grown locally.”
Using a plant known as elephant grass or ‘napier grass’, the cooperative workers must first dry the plant out, before dyeing it with natural materials, such as turmeric and charcoal, and then weaving it into baskets, bags and more. It’s a long, patient and impressive process.
“The thing that really resonated with me was that Isaac decided to start the cooperative because he noticed that in his hometown, the rate of unemployment was particularly high, and he knew that this would give ladies in his extended family, and other fellow villagers, a bit of sustenance. If they’re able to produce something in that area rather than import things in, they can generate money to sustain themselves… it just resonated with me, as a woman.”
The Copper Fruit began buying products from the cooperative, and also sharing a portion of their overall profits with them.
“In the north, it rains horrendously. So Isaac wants to build a larger well-covered, well-ventilated area where they can actually work in better comfort. So we’re hoping to earn enough profit to be able to help him with that aim. He also wants to get a minibus to pick people up because some of them live kilometers away and walk in. He’s looking at it from a wellbeing perspective, which I think is completely right, and we want to feed into that as much as we can. For me it’s about being fair. Any additional money we make in terms of profit is split between them and a local food bank down the road here in Surrey.”
Advice for working with an overseas supplier
Importing these items from the cooperative in Ghana has been both a rewarding experience, and a great way to expand The Copper Fruit’s product offering. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Yaa told us of their first order, which the post office had inadvertently shipped to a man in Denmark, and didn’t end up arriving with them for around three months.
“Always do a test run, both in terms of the items you want to retail, and how they’re going to get to you. It’s key to find a really good shipper, or a good postal service” — this was Yaa’s main piece of advice when it came to working with new suppliers overseas. She also stressed the importance of planning ahead, checking exchange rates, and considering the weight of any items you order (as this can drastically increase shipping costs).
“Some things can be lost in translation. If you have an idea of something, or you want to kind of adapt something into a local style, it’s really good to have a picture, and your measurements. It may take a bit of back and forth… but it’s all about building your relationships with your suppliers. But although you’re asking someone to make something, they’re the expert, so be open to feedback.”
Building a meaningful brand
While donating to a charity is an easy (and brilliant) thing for any business to do, one thing we really admire about The Copper Fruit is the way the social enterprising element of the brand, and the desire to really help others, has been baked in from day one.
“I think the main thing is actually to want to really want to actually make a positive change” said Yaa, when we asked her for the advice she’d give to other brands looking to build the same meaningful side to their business. “I think when you have that mindset, you’ll be more prone to seeking out situations or people that work within that remit, or you might find off the back of a discussion that someone recommends someone to you.”
It’s clear from talking to Yaa that this also means not taking the easy path. It’s choosing to work with a younger seamstress with a newer business based outside of a major city, rather than the more established, city-based one.
“I think also really doing your research. There’s nothing that can’t be solved with proper research. I know it’s difficult but there are organisations in Ghana, or wherever, which might be able to point you in the right direction. There are all sorts of different NGOs and other organisations where you can get info from. And also tourism boards; I know they might seem a little bit corporate, but they’ll have contacts for everything, they’ll know of people who have a good supply chain, and that’s important.”
What’s next for The Copper Fruit
There are a lot of exciting projects on The Copper Fruit’s horizon. Mugs, notebooks, tea towels, furoshiki, Christmas cards… there are plenty of exciting new products in the works.
Sustainability is also becoming more of a key focus. Yaa’s friend is working on a project to help reforest Ghana with indigenous trees, and they’re hoping to be able to support this project more closely in the future. They’re also moving towards more eco-friendly, FSC approved wrapping paper.
Yaa’s passion for Ghana, and the beautiful products made there, is completely infectious. If you haven’t done so already, we’d urge you to take a look at The Copper Fruit’s Creoate store for wholesale, or their own website if you’re looking for something for yourself, or to give as a gift. You can also follow along on Instagram @thecopperfruit.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Yaa! We can’t wait to keep watching The Copper Fruit go from strength to strength.
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