Interview by Ikesha Avo
Published 25th September 2022
Yaa & Maame Mary
It starts with family.
"Oh, Mum. I've started The Copper Fruit and you are part of it!”
This was the proclamation Yaa made to her Mum, Maame Mary, upon Maame Mary’s return from Ghana over the lockdown in 2020.
“I didn't give her a choice”, they both laugh together reflecting on the start of the business.
This mother and daughter duo are behind the successful sustainable gifting and lifestyle brand, The Copper Fruit. The brand is a celebration of the rich diversity of Africa. The business they have created is engineered to create positive social impact for both the United Kingdom and Africa.
Yaa is within the unique class of 2020 entrepreneurs who pivoted careers over the lockdown. She turned her hand to design and, in collaboration with her Mum, the business has grown successfully.
The Surrey based family business functions by the contributions from their family and friends within the UK and Ghana - particularly of Maame Mary’s niece, M'Adwoa and also Yaa’s friend Rukie, who manage logistics in Ghana.
A consistent tone of stewardship and a recognition of beauty in different ways of living is a refreshing starting point to hear from these business leaders. Much of this approach is perhaps born out of the nurture and education from this mother to her daughter.
The earth matters and the impact that we have on the earth matters.
Yaa: The earth matters and the impact that we have on the earth matters.
Yaa begins as she opens up on how their lifestyle and culture is at the core of their sustainable outlook.
Y: The way that people live life in Africa and other parts of the world traditionally is quite eco-friendly if you think about it. It’s born from taking care of the earth, taking care of your surroundings.
We already have this within us, it’s part of our way of living. We will reuse stuff, we will not use too much or we will think of alternatives. So, for me incorporating sustainability didn't seem too much of a stretch.
At the time of starting, I also questioned where the businesses from among the Black community were that really tried to ensure that a lot of what they're doing is actually environmentally sustainable?
These are values that I hold.
Maame Mary: It came naturally to you Yaa.
We had been telling our children lots of things about Africa when they were growing up. We took them there and they saw it first-hand. They realised how we live there. It's not like here it's different, far, far different.
Most of the things we use are all natural. But now because of different forms of education and travelling we use other things as well. In terms of food and consumption the things we used before were healthier.
Yaa with The Copper Fruit products she designed
Y: At home, we always have a natural aspect to whatever we're doing. This translates into some of our products such as our wrapping paper, and packaging for our items.
Now we can see the impact of climate change and irresponsible behaviour of people on the earth. Some beaches have been eroded and there are plastics in the oceans.
This earth that we've been blessed with, we need to take care of it.
I don't think that's a hippie way of thinking. It's just common sense. Because if we don't preserve it, then we lose it. And then where are we going to be?
You see organised climate groups glueing themselves to the road – it’s a bit extreme - but you have to understand where they're coming from.
Ikesha Avo: What we're dealing with is extreme.
Y: Yes and the only way to change perception and to have these conversations is by people getting frustrated with them glueing themselves to the road.
Why are they glueing themselves to the road? - it’s because nobody is listening. What do we need to listen to? - the impact of fossil fuel depletion and similar matters.
The Copper Fruit are actively responsible in their efforts to make better choices for the earth. Their overall product range and Yaa’s designs are fun and vibrant, showing that sustainable and ethical products do not have to be boring or arduous.
The Furoshiki gift wrapping cloth counteracts the disposable culture within gifting by making an attractive reusable Zero Waste solution. The brand’s top selling card designed by Yaa, ‘We go together like Plantain and Beans’ plays on a favoured dish of Ghana and is part of their FSC Certified Greeting Card range.
A selection of The Copper Fruit products
The Copper Fruit are the approved European distributor of the fans and baskets produced by a cooperative set up to tackle unemployment in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana. The cooperative prioritises environmentally friendly practices and is made up of a group of predominantly women.
When The Copper Fruit, who were keen to do business from an African perspective, partnered with founder Isaac, who wanted to expand it to an international market, a synergy was born.
IA: The fans and baskets produced by the cooperative are made of elephant grass which is also a material being researched as a replacement for fossil fuel. It's a really good material that you're working with. Was that a particular choice?
Y: Just learning about the way that they make these items appealed to me. They cut the elephant grass, then dye it using natural dyes. The area that they are in within northern Ghana means everything has to be less impactful to the earth including by-products. So they dye the grass naturally using ingredients such as indigo, turmeric and hibiscus.
I remember for the fans, Isaac said to me, “Oh, so do you want leather?” and I said, “Nope, I want them to be vegan”. I want the products to be accessible - that's what I want The Cooper Fruit to be.
I want people to be able to access what we can provide. They don't need to be a particular type of person to access it. We're about inclusivity rather than exclusivity.
With the family’s personal roots in Ghana, it’s their most sensible place to start - but don’t be fooled, it is by no means where they intend to stop. The Copper Fruit has ambitions to replicate the successful model they have established with Isaac across the continent of Africa. Inviting consumers from all over the world to buy from producers of Africa via The Copper Fruit.
MM: To be able to get artisans from different parts of Africa to see what they are producing. If you go to South Africa, they do something different, you go to the east, they do something different, Ethiopia and so on. That's what we want to do, to help them.
Y: The reason we're celebrating Africans is because there is so much that is unknown, misrepresented or just ignored about the continent. People are so talented, so creative, and so willing to work on things there. We don't want to lose that.
We’re really keen on making our own little community. And I'd encourage anybody to do the same. Businesses don't always need to go to large established suppliers to buy products. Yes, they will get them probably quicker, yes, they will get them at a cost premium very cheaply. But they already have a big market. To raise everybody up is not a singular raising up. But once you raise your community up, everybody rises.
Cooperative based in Bolgatanga
If I know that we've ordered from the cooperative each month, then I know that the money gets dispersed to the actual women and men making these items. And, what do you do when you have a little bit of money? - you buy a little bit of food. In Ghana, you pay for your children's school fees, you may do a little bit of business on your own or something.
It's helping people to sustain themselves. I don't believe in aid. I know it's going to be a little bit controversial, but I don't believe in it because I don't think it's a long term sustainable plan. I think you need to help people in order to help themselves and that helps to sustain them.
IA: You are both using the word ‘help’, and that's fine but to me, I really hear empowerment and investment.
MM: That’s it, you said it the right way.
Respecting land and community and it being a source of joy is something that was an integral part of Maame Mary’s childhood within Ghana.
IA: What was your lifestyle like growing up?
MM: We believe in our tradition, a lot. That tradition means that you do things in an African way.
We did our farming as children with our Mum and Dad. There was land to grow on so they would allow certain parts for my siblings and I to grow produce on. They would give us cocoa beans and show us how to do it.
I was the eldest, so when I grew my cocoa, what I used to do was take a long stick to measure the planting of the beans from one hole to the next. I would sow them in a straight line so when they started growing mine were so nice.
I was even teaching the adults, they would say “Come and see what she has done!
And when the farm was full, we went to harvest.
It was a community thing to help each other. The Chief in the town, whether it's a village or the town, if there's anything to be done, even to build a toilet, they would just play the gong - gong to announce it,
“We're going to this place and to build a toilet”
So, everyone would go and build. It would be communal labour so as to help each other.
At that time, the council was there, but still it wasn't a big council to help. But people used to do lots of communal labour to get things done.
Yaa’s upbringing was spent in West and North West London - though she spent part of her thirties living in Ghana. Yaa describes her gratitude for Maame Mary encouraging her to immerse within the local rich Asian Diwali festivals and learn about the cultures of other people when they lived in North West London.
Now living in Surrey, an hour out of London, taking time to care and be active within the local community continues. This is reflected in how they treat the profits from The Copper Fruit.
IA: As well as working with those in the continent, The Copper Fruit also donates part of its profits to a food bank in Surrey.
Y: It's the same ethos, really. We're living in that community, so how can we walk down the road and know that people are hungry? My mum always says nobody should be hungry.
It's just the worst thing. The fact that anybody's child cannot have the sustenance that they need to live to think… You can't think if you haven't eaten. Children are supposed to be learning.
We wanted to do something that was helping our local community. The church that holds the food bank is just down the road from us.
Integrating the basic needs of others is a mentality prevalent in The Copper Fruit as an enterprise. The basic needs to eat, be kind to the earth and source ethical producers underpin their work - and it’s all started for them within the family.
Climate change is having a social impact across the world and it is important now more than ever that everyone plays their part in creating solutions.
Making investments that support others and do not hinder the earth is the mindset of being a global citizen, and one that Maame Mary and Yaa hold in The Copper Fruit. All this whilst celebrating the abundant land and people of Africa.
Visit www.thecopperfruit.com for updates on The Copper Fruit
Photo credits: Yaa & Maame Mary, Yaa with The Copper Fruit products she designed, A selection of The Copper Fruit products, Maame Mary, final untitled photo all photographed by Annie Lye; Cooperative based in Bolgatanga provided courtesy of The Copper Fruit