James Brett was nine years old when his grandfather began sexually abusing him. At 16 his mother leapt to her death from the top of a multistorey car park. Two decades of drug abuse and several spells in prison followed.
While in recovery he founded Pomegreat, the UK’s first pomegranate juice. But, after a mental breakdown saw him sectioned in a psychiatric ward, he was driven out of the business. So now he negotiates with the Taliban in the middle of a war zone, making Plant for Peace fruit bars.
His tough background “helps him connect” with the Middle Eastern farmers he works with to produce the bars, 70% of which are made from ingredients grown by smallholders in Afghanistan. “For 20 years of my life I felt pretty damned insignificant,” he says. “I felt ostracised. And the farming community of Afghanistan also feels that.”
It’s hard to believe now but until 2001 - the year it was invaded by the US - the country supplied 12% of the world’s pomegranates. Now it supplies 90% of the world’s opium instead, which is processed into heroin. “It’s this horticulture bread basket of Asia,” Brett insists. “It’s absolutely phenomenal and yet no one connects it to the international food and drinks industry.”
Understandable, perhaps, given the bureaucracy and security the likes of Unilever would need simply to enter the country. “It would be very difficult,” he admits. “They’d need armed guards taking them around, and I didn’t want that. You can’t relate to people in that position, which is why I created Plant for Peace because we don’t have those kind of protocols in place. It’s about getting on with it.”
Forging connections with the international supply chain has become Brett’s mission. His starting point was convincing a single farmer to swap his poppies for pomegranates back in April 2007 en route to address a food conference in Kabul. Months later, he found himself in a gathering of 400 tribal elders outside Jalalabad persuading them to switch from opiates to fruits, in particular pomegranates and mulberries.
It wasn’t as hard as it sounds, insists Brett, as the appeal of poppies has never been profitability.
“The farming communities get around $4,000 a hectare for opium, and $6,000 for pomegranates,” he says. Yet the dissolution of the supply chain between Afghanistan and the international market left fruits rotting in storage sheds, with the relative reliability of the illegal narcotics trade enough of a temptation for many farmers to abandon fruit for drugs.
Support for the switch back was unanimous from the elders. “They said it was because I was the first person to come without a badge, a gun or a uniform,” recalls Brett. “We just connected as people.” More gatherings followed until 55,000 elders had pledged their support.
The sight of a white Westerner in full Arab dress speaking to huge tribal gatherings - and burning a stockpile of 30 tonnes of opium - also attracted the attentions of the world’s media. And although Brett self-funded the first 40,000 pomegranate trees, the coverage led to a $2m grant from US AID to plant 1.9 million more and the plan for a commercial arm to the Plant for Peace Foundation - and the fruit bars - was born.
After 18 months developing a system to turn the fruit into a powdered format (to allow for a far higher proportion of pomegranate in the bars) Brett set up a facility in Kabul to train 30 women to process the fruit so it could be shipped to Austria and turned into bars.
Using retail connections developed when he set up Pomegreat in 2003, Brett has won listings this year in Waitrose and Holland & Barrett, with a £1.39 rsp on the bars and an on-pack promise that each one sold leads to a pomegranate tree being planted in Afghanistan.
He’s confident the public will buy into the brand ethos. “I don’t believe a food product in 2015 without a social impact attached has much relevance,” he says. He admits the recipe could still use some tweaking “but the general public seem to like it”.
Ian Mackie, head of food at Holland & Barrett, agrees. “As well as being a great product it’s also a compelling story and a good cause,” he says. “We know our customers buy into the values Holland & Barrett stand for and they have already got behind these products with good initial sales.”
Sales reached about 100,000 units between May and September, says Brett, who is now in discussions with Sainsbury’s. He’s quick to reel off far more ambitious projections for the next 12 months.
By September 2016 he hopes to sell 3.5 million, and 10 million by the end of 2017, with the cash used to fund a new production facility in Afghanistan to remove the need to ship via Austria.
Then again “this story is not about a fruit bar,” says Brett. “It’s about connecting farming communities in conflict who are struggling with the international food industry, and the bar is the first symbolic product.”
A further 15 Plant for Peace products are being looked at, including a range of citrus-infused muesli that Brett hopes to gain UK listings for next year. He’s also met with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s to discuss supplying fruit for the brand’s ice creams and signed an NDA with a cosmetics company to use pomegranate extract (and the Plant for Peace logo) with its products.
But does he not worry that the instability in the Middle East could derail the project at any moment?
“Plant for Peace belongs to the farmers,” he replies. “It’s their initiative and if they want to destroy their own livelihood then that’d be crazy. But if we don’t give them a hand to convert across to normal livelihoods, then what chance have they got?”