Out of Africa

Paula Voorhees, 54, is the president of African Farms, a distributor of organic dried fruit grown in Uganda. Voorhees, a native of Tucson, has owned three different distribution businesses and was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. African Farms started two months ago; its major supplier is African Organic--a 12-year-old Ugandan business that ships organic dried fruit globally. Its proceeds have funded new schools, sports fields and a new marketplace in Uganda.

Tell me the story behind African Organic.

Amin Shivji and his family were among 50,000 Ugandans of Asian origin whose property was nationalized by Idi Amin in 1972. He was forced to leave his farm and move to Canada. Over the next 30 years, he earned his MBA, bought a supermarket and became president of a publicly traded company.

Did he return to Uganda?

In 1990, President Museveni returned expropriated property and Shivji traveled back to Uganda. His farm was in ruins. He couldn't bear to turn his back on the villagers who spent two decades in poverty.

So what did he do?

Shivji had an idea that he believed would bring Uganda great prosperity: organic farming. He taught 89 local growers organic farming. Sales help Ugandan smallholders move away from a subsistence existence.

How did you get involved with African Organic?

I previously had a distribution company; I was distributing a nutraceutical that had been developed by an inventor in Tucson. The product I was distributing was an anti-inflammatory. Sept. 11 caused us a lot of problems É we ended up not having the money available that we thought we would have. Nazin Shivji, the brother of Amin, was interested in the nutraceutical product, but because of business differences, wasn't able to invest in the company. He and I established a friendship É so we looked for a product we could distribute together. When the African Organic product was passed by the USDA for distribution in the United States, he asked me if I would be up for the challenge of distributing it. And I said yes because I loved the product and it was supporting such a good cause.

How does your company, African Farms, tie in with African Organic?

Nazin orders the product from African Organic for me. I sell the product and I pay Nazin for the product. He, in turn, pays African Organic. I have my own distribution business, African Farms, and African Organic is the supplier.

How do you operate African Farms?

I contact retail stores, charitable groups that need fund-raisers and distributors. The product comes into Phoenix É and then I distribute it.

Tell me about the product.

There's packaged dried mango, bananas, papayas, pineapple and ginger. It's 100 percent organic with no additives and is sun-dried. It's certified organic É Swiss certified. They are much more stringent than the U.S. standards. Our product comes already packaged in 3-ounce and 1.8-ounce packages.

Where can it be purchased in Tucson?

It will be on the shelves in three weeks at New Life Health Centers, Health Hut, Time Market, Rincon Market, Food Conspiracy Co-op and various farmers' markets. We expect that Tucson Cooperative Warehouse will be distributing for us, wherever all of their clients are. They have something like 15,000 clients.

You also sell to charitable organizations?

Yes, as an example, the Science of Mind Center in Tucson needed to develop a consistent income. I suggested they sell this product at the farmers' markets so they could raise money for their charitable causes. É I am doing a guaranteed sale, so they only pay for what sells. I only do that for charitable organizations.

What about organizations that have annual fund-raisers?

If they have a one-time fund-raiser, I would sell to them. The product is a multi-cultural, multi-denominational fund-raiser. There are no boundaries to it.

What is the goal of African Farms?

I believe through Nazin's good heart, he's given me the opportunity to sell a product where I will be financially rewarded but will also help people. It's my goal to help the world and reach out--making people aware we are all one.

Tell me more about that.

I can relate to the core being of a Ugandan farmer and his need to rise above sustenance living, the need to support his family. These are core issues we all have. I feel we all come from one universal mind and that's how I can relate to a farmer living in Uganda.

You've had other distribution companies before. How does this one differ from the others?

This business has been so spiritually oriented and it seems like it has been so well-accepted. It's one of the easier sells I've ever had. ... People say "where do I sign up?" This one comes from a higher power. I'm one of the conduits.

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