Collaboration with Peace Islands/VECO and APROVAG

Senegal wants to export more bananas

Peace Islands/VECO started a project with APROVAG banana growers, the Dutch importer Agrofair and the supermarket chain Colruyt Group to get more Senegalese bananas on the shelves of Dakar and Colruyt Group. Jo Vermeersch, of the Peace Island website, interviewed Leo Gyhsels on the banana market in Senegal.

Leo, first of all could you tell us how the banana market in Senegal works? How many growers are there and what is the consumer side like?
There are around 9000 banana farmers in Senegal in total. The region around Tambacounda, where Peace Islands is active, is the main region for banana cultivation. Senegal has its own production of around 36,000 tonnes per year. Because around 45 to 50,000 tonnes of bananas are consumed in the country each year, there is also import. In 2014 this was around 15,000 tonnes. That import is mainly from Ivory Coast. The Senegalese government wants to invest more in a number of product with export opportunities over the next few years. The banana is one of those products.

Is the banana production in Senegal mainly focused on the domestic market at the moment?
As far as I know there is no export of bananas from Senegal. Although... Aprovag, the organisation of banana farmers in Tambacounda, has already exported two containers as a test. For the first container (at the end of 2014) the export was favourable. The quality of the bananas was good upon arrival in Europe. The second container was a disappointment. The bananas, that were intended to be sold are organic fairtrade bananas in the Colruyt Group stores, turned out to be unsuitable for sales in supermarkets. This was a downer for everyone.

We now know the main reason for the problem. It's in the production process. To supply good fruit, a banana plant has to have a regular supply of water. If it doesn't, a banana will ripen too quickly and you'll get bananas that are green on the outside but already ripe inside. This is bad for export, where bananas are transported for 12 to 14 days. For Aprovag, the organisation we are working with, this is the big challenge, organising themselves and their members more as an industry. By this I mean that every part of the chain, from planting to packaging and transport has to be done according to a certain systematic, every week. And this takes discipline.

Is this the role of Peace Islands? Guide organisations such as Aprovag to work more systematically?
That's right. Now, at Aprovag they know this. They have already completed a route with Peace Islands. It comes down to that discipline, to have it systematically penetrate each individual grower. On a plantation you are soon talking about 150 farmers who each work a piece of land, each in their own way. This manner of working and with it the quality of their products, varies. And the quality of the collective production is only as good as its weakest link. Everyone therefore has to work according to the same principles and follow them rigorously. The ground that the growers work on isn't owned by the farmers, but by a growers cooperation (GIE), and they can take away your land if you aren't doing your best. But this rarely happens. In the area of company organisation and thinking there is certainly room for improvement. The difference can be made here. This can be done by organising the different production phases in a more centralised collective way.

Can you give a concrete example of this?
People at the Sankagne plantation now have a system with sprinkler installed for the irrigation of the bananas. You can call this revolutionary for Aprovag. On one hand this saves the farm 5 hours of work per day, as at the moment it is done manually with a type of hose. The banana plant also receives water more evenly with the sprinkler system and less water is lost. There is enough water. The plantations are on the banks of the Gambia river. The sprinkler installation will be completed in February in 2016. After that it's the Nguène plantation's turn. The financing there has been completed. It's a large investment, but one that will pay off. Optimising the irrigation is our priority for 2016 at the moment. Experience has taught us that with the current way of operating it will be impossible to meet the desired standards.

The system means extra costs for the growers. Can they make back this investment?
Absolutely, There is a market for quality bananas in Senegal itself, especially in Dakar. People there pay prices that aren't that much lower than our prices: 900 FCFA per kg for consumers in the shop. That's 1.40 to 1.50 Euro. The farmers can win in 2 ways: they will be able to supply to the 'marché de gamme haute' in Dakar and to the supermarkets like Casino, CityDia, etc. The prices they will be able to get there are very interesting. They are already receiving 350 FCFA where Aprovag used to receive 260 FCFA per kilogram of packaged bananas. And if the quality improves there are prices of 400 to 415 FCFA within reach.
The growers will also have a large yield due to the better irrigation and due to better fertilisation. The latter does mean an extra production costs, especially because it concerns organic bananas, but they will easily make back that investment in sales. There is a large margin in yields. 30 to 40 tonnes per hectare per year has to be attainable. The plantations in the village of Nguène, where farmers received intensive support, prove this. Whilst not even half is often made in the other village, sometimes only 10 to 11 tonnes. Imagine, two to three times more...

Why was organic chosen?
It is mainly intended for export. The Senegalese bananas have to compete with bananas from various parts of the world on the European market. By choosing the organic segment the positioning on the market is a lot simpler. Organic doesn't play that much of a role on the market in Dakar, but it can work as a kind of quality label. They are the first and for now, the only organic bananas on the market in Dakar. This gives it a comparative advantage as far as marketing is concerned. The conditions in and around Tambacounda also lend themselves well for growing organic bananas. Due to the low air humidity they are hardly bothered by diseases or fungus, which means no crop protection has to be used. In Costa Rica, for example, it is practically impossible to grow organic bananas, due to the high level of humidity.

Peace Islands is collaborating with companies such as Colruyt Group and Agrofair in this banana project, a supermarket and an import. Does this collaboration have added value for the farmers?
Absolutely. You often see some scepticism among farmers when starting projects. A bit of: "Exporting bananas to Europe... we want to do that, but will the other companies in the chain engage?" But when I visited the plantations with representatives of Colruyt Group and Agrofair, I only saw that their presence impressed the farmers. The fact that representatives of companies like this make the effort to visit the growers on their plantations, it stimulates the faith and motivation among the farmers. And then there is the price: it is much higher for export than what they get in Dakar. That export also creates some additional job opportunities, for instance in the packaging and preparing for transport. Many younger people get an income through this, that they didn't have before.

What we are doing with Peace Island is intended to set examples. Showing how successfully a chain like this can work, so that this experience can be expanded and taken over. What do we learn from this experience?

See, what has to happen here, is that you build up the quality of the entire banana chain. Besides the farmers' and the organisation's work, people have to work on improving planting goods, making good pallets and better boxes. Transporters who work with the right material, with an adjusting cooling, etc. Like I said, the banana chain has to be organised like an industry, efficient and smooth. From planting to arrival in Dakar, each action has to become a routine that can be repeated, every week, with regularity in the area of quality and quantity. We are building that system here, nothing more and nothing less. We are also playing into the plan of the Senegalese government to develop the banana chain. This is also a stimulating factor.

But building a chain into a smooth and reliably working whole is years of work and sometimes people forget that. Are we too impatient as a developmental organisation, as donors? Do we expect results too soon?
The communication of organisations such as Peace Island often focuses on campaigns or fundraising and we like to talk about results and successes in this. Although a lot of our projects are 'fighting projects': environments where it is difficult to work and where you need time. If it was easy to make structural changes they wouldn't have waited for Peace Islands to come around.
These types of projects take time, a lot of time, and we sometime don't have enough patience here at Peace Islands, I'm afraid.

The story of the banana farmers in Senegal is a very complex one. It is a large group of farming families from elsewhere. It is in fact a relocation project after a large drought in the area they used to live in. These farmers come from a survival strategy. This is why they don't just grow bananas. The farming families are masters in spreading risks out of necessity. Investing in a little here and there, so that if one harvest fails, there is a plan B. In certain circumstances this is an understandable and good strategy, but is the opposite of the strategy now needed for marketing; maximisation both in the area of yield and quality. This means changes from different sides. At the same time we don't want farmers to become solely dependent on the export of bananas, on the contrary. This combination by itself is a complex, but every interesting element of this project, from which a lot can be learned.

What is a realistic expectation? What are the plans for the coming year?
As mentioned before we will invest in irrigation. This should be possible for the plantations in Sankagne and Nguene in August. For the Saal plantation, besides sprinklers, there also has to be investment in new pumps that can pump water out of the Gambia river due to old age. Technicians will also be educated who can maintain the pumps regularly and correctly.

In March we will visit with specialists form Colruyt Group and Agrofair again to make a 'state of affairs' and to plan for the coming months and make changes if needed. An important investment in good materials will come from Agrofair, for instance a number of tractors and the education to go with it. This is also very important: quality materials and well educated people to work with them. We will also invest in composting organic material for enriching the soil. This will also be mechanised with a mobile compost installation. Besides irrigation, compost and fertilisation are very important. Banana plants are demanding on the soil.

Systems for better harvesting are also being taught. This means: at the best time. It is done with a simple system of ribbons at the moment. The plants in a plantation are ready to harvest at different moment. Due to a system of coloured ribbons they know what plants can be harvested and packaged when, week after week. It can be that simple. But, you have to apply it correctly. Besides this there is also consideration on what the best company structure could be for the banana farmers' organisations. At the moment they are all independent farmers who individually work a piece of land belonging to the farmers' group.

Will the objective remain getting the organic bananas on the shelves of Colruyt Group stores?

Absolutely. It objectively remains this, you can hardly underestimate the effect of the motivation of the farmers of this. Last year it caused them to get 3 certifications in a few months time: Organic, Fairtrade and GlobalGAP. This is a feat. At first few believed it would happen. Without the deadline for the export possibility it never would have happened. There is also the farmers' pride.

The fact that the second container went badly, hit them hard in Senegal. It was an especially hard hit to the people of Aprovag. But we all learnt from it. The container never should have left Senegal. The bananas in question shouldn't have passed quality control. But we were so eager to succeed that we thought we couldn't fail. That negative experience did mean a wake-up call for those concerned and this gives us good hope for the future. We will now invest in the Dakar market, and then one of the Colruyt Group stores. Maybe this year, and if not, next.

Thank you Leo, for this fascinating conversation, we will try to be more patient in the future.

This interview was conducted by Jo Vermeersch and appeared on the Peace Island websitelast week.

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