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Africa blooms in the Midlands

BLOOMING: Rustie lee and Chris Canaan

A TINY slice of Africa is thriving in Britain’s unpredictable climate thanks to one green-fingered man who has just scooped another gold medal for his work, while also supporting vulnerable youngsters in one of the world’s largest slums in Kenya.

Chris Canaan is the creative brains behind Akamba Easy Exotics in Tythe Barn Lane, Shirley, a six-acre gardening centre in the West Midlands which is based on the theme of an African village.

And his love of growing tropical plants in the UK has just scooped him another Royal Horticultural Society gold at this year’s BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

Now fresh from his medal glory, Chris is about to transform Aston Arena into a Caribbean paradise for a two-night extravaganza of Caribbean Live 2011, organised by the original queen of Caribbean cuisine Rustie Lee.

It promises to be the mother of all Caribbean parties on Friday July 22nd and Saturday July 23rd with live limbo, fire dancing, carnival capers and authentic Caribbean food and drink.

But on a more serious note, the event will also raise funds for a charity dear to both Chris and Rustie’s hearts. Chris, together with Liz Formby founded the Akamba Children’s Education Fund to support the education and health of 900-plus street children who attend the Brainhouse Academy in Mathare North in Kenya, one of the world’s largest slums.

Rustie is also patron of the charity and together they hope her two-night event will further boost funds to help the academy, which is not recognised by the government so relies on donations for the children’s day to day care.

Rustie, who spent many years as the popular resident chef on TV-AM, said: “This is my first singular patronage of a charity and as a chef, making sure children are well fed is something very dear to my heart – we hope my Caribbean evenings will significantly boost funds.”

For Smethwick-born Chris, whose parents are from Jamaica, his love affair with Africa began as a child and is now evident both in his current career and his charity work.

A former Olympic speed skater, Chris is also an artist, fashion designer and a sculptor and all this is evident - minus the ice skates – at the Akamba garden centre.

“People say they feel they have come on safari here,” joked Chris, who also won a BBC Gardeners’ World gold award last year and has a silver medal from this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

With the strategically placed sculptures of gorillas, elephants, giraffes and wildebeest scattered among the giant palms and ferns, Akamba is indeed a piece of Africa in the heart of the UK.

Chris has perfected the art growing tropical plants that now thrive in Britain’s climate.

He said: “This last winter was a tough one and we did lose quite a lot, but otherwise they do really well. I have some plants here that a 400 years old.”

The centre is also packed to the rafters with African art and is a popular venue for weddings and parties.

Tickets are still on sale for Rustie’s extravaganza with limited VIP tickets also available which include cocktails, a three-course Caribbean meal and a chance to meet the entertainers taking part who include Chaka Demus & Pliers, Winston Francis, Susan Cadogan, Delroy Williams & the Junction Band and the Might Jamma Soca Band.

Limited tickets will be available on the day. Contact Aston Arena on 0121 327 7337 or email

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