Sainsbury's enlisted the help of the Kenyan government, the British High Commission and the Fairtrade Foundation to get more than 100 African suppliers to attend its conference on its supply chain in the continent this week.

The aim of 'Fit for the Future' conference in Nairobi only the second such event Sainsbury's has held was to foster closer relationships with the retailer's supply chain in the developing world and to discuss the global future of food and farming.

Companies that attended collectively supply more than £300m of fresh produce to Sainsbury's a year.

Issues explored included how to balance future supply and demand against sustainability, biodiversity, crop development and water availability.

A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said a key difficulty was often simply the distance between the retailer's UK base and its suppliers.

"The challenges to the region from a sustainability perspective require collaborative and close working," she said. "That's hard when you are 1,000 miles away."

Speakers at the event included Sainsbury's director of brand, Judith Batchelar, and Dr Wilson Zonga, secretary to the Kenyan minister for agriculture.

"Africa is really important to Sainsbury's and our customers because we source a wide variety of products from this vast continent, many of which are Fairtrade," said Batchelar. "These events have helped bring us closer to our African growers and suppliers. In turn, we have given them a greater understanding of the UK grocery market."

The retailer said the event was also about securing the best produce for its stores and maintaining its leadership in Fairtrade.

"Countries who produce high-quality, unique products have a choice about who they export to and we want to be top of their list," added the spokeswoman.

Sainsbury's also held its first-ever technical management academy, giving suppliers practical help with meeting the requirements involved in supplying a major UK retailer.