Justice for ‘Kwabena’ – Gets compensation from Dutch retailer

Okwesi Johnston

The pineapple farmer from the Central Region, who was erroneously called Kwabena and unaware of being the face of an advertising campaign in the Netherlands has now received compensation. Investigative journalist Olivier van Beemen reports.

The leading Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn (AH) has reached a settlement with Okwesi Johnston, a pineapple grower from the Central Region in Ghana. Both parties have agreed not to disclose the terms.

Johnston took Albert Heijn to court at the end of last year for unlawful use of his portrait in an advertising campaign: he was featured on promotional posters in fruit and vegetable sections in Dutch supermarkets for several years, without his knowledge, permission or receiving any payment.

“This is the Albert Heijn of Kwabena from Ghana,’ the poster reads, followed by the slogan ‘double nice’. ‘Our fruit not only tastes nice, it also gives you a nice feeling. That’s because our growers, together with the AH Foundation, contribute to better living conditions for the local community.’

I went to Ghana to look for Kwabena and investigated whether the projects of the AH Foundation, the charity unit of the supermarket chain, indeed contribute to the well-being of people living near the pineapple fields. Unannounced, I visited some of them and observed overcrowded classrooms, a disappeared public toilet building and boreholes which were not in use, providing water that was – according to villagers – too salty to drink.

I also asked twelve former and one current staff members, who could speak openly, about their experiences at the workplace of the British multinational Blue Skies. This company supplies fruits to retailers in several European countries, including Albert Heijn and a number of British supermarket chains. The company buys pineapples and other tropical fruits from farmers like ‘Kwabena’, cuts and packs them in a factory in Nsawam (Eastern Region), and sends them in plastic containers by plane to Europe, where they end up in the fresh produce section. Ghana Business News reported my findings – and the reactions of Blue Skies and Albert Heijn – in October last year.

After searching in the Eastern region at first, I found Kwabena in a village in the Central Region, with the help of Blue Skies. His name turned out to be Okwesi Johnston. His middle name is Kobena, a different way to spell Kwabena, but nobody calls him that. He said he had informed Blue Skies of this error years before, but they continued to call him Kwabena, the name Albert Heijn took over in its campaign.

The ad featuring ‘Kwabena’ in a supermarket in The Netherlands

After the story of the Ghanaian pineapple farmer was discussed in a broadcast of Argos, a Dutch public radio show specialising in investigative journalism, one person listened with rapt attention. He is Bert-Jan van Manen, a legal consultant, who was involved in a similar case. He decided to offer Johnston free legal assistance. With Johnston’s consent, he filed a claim against Albert Heijn.

Albert Heijn tried to brush him off and told him to go after Blue Skies in Ghana. Van Manen refused – “this case belongs in a Dutch court,” he said – the supermarket came with an offer, considerably lower than the sum he was claiming.

Van Manen took the retailer to court, on Johnston’s behalf. But eventually, the farmer decided to agree to the settlement proposal made by Heijn. A lawsuit could take more than a year, with him running the risk of losing against a powerful, multi-billion-euro company.

For Van Manen, who didn’t charge Johnston any fee or percentage, the settlement has a bittersweet taste. “I’m happy for Okwesi, but if Albert Heijn had accepted our claim, it would probably have been considerably cheaper for them. Apparently the company made a different assessment,” he says.

Albert Heijn does not want to say how much it paid for legal assistance, nor does the retailer answer any of our other questions. “The issue has been resolved by mutual agreement. We won’t make any statements about the content of the agreements,” the retailer said.

We also asked Blue Skies for a reaction and an answer to the question whether our previous story has done ‘a great deal of damage to livelihoods in Africa’, as its British CEO, Hugh Pile claimed it would, before publication.

“Things are very difficult here and I am afraid I’ve not had time to consider your questions, let alone reply. I will endeavour to do so by the end of the month,” Pile wrote. We didn’t get answers before publication.

And Okwesi Johnston says, all things considered, he is satisfied with the outcome.

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