Suriname isn’t known as a banana country for the European market. Production volumes can’t be compared to the boatloads from, for example, Ecuador that arrive in European ports every week. Yet there’s a stable supply from Suriname to Antwerp, from where the bananas are further transported across Europe.
“Food and Agriculture Industries, or FAI, owns two farms in Suriname, which house multiple banana growers,” says Chuck de Liederkerke from The Fruit Farm Group. The area amounts to about 2,000 hectares in total, and more than three million boxes are filled with bananas annually. In 2014, the plantations were taken over from the Surinamese government, after which the company started developing new markets. “The local market in Suriname is very small for us, we have two important markets: the Caribbean and Europe,” Chuck continues. “We’re the only commercial banana grower in Suriname, on average we supply at least 40 containers to Europe and we would like to expand on this volume in future.”
“Room for quality”
The majority of the bananas are sold in European retail. The company has two labels for that: Katopé for premium bananas and Switie for the discount. Despite the low banana price, Chuck has seen that there’s plenty of room for premium bananas on the shelves. “There’s always room for quality on the market. We have good relationships with our customers in the Caribbean and Europe. Of course we notice some movement when prices drop, but we know these are seasonal fluctuations. To us, the relationship with the customer is important. You’ll always have an added value with good quality.” He mentions an independent flavour panel in which the Surinamese bananas received the best results.
The company has a historic connection with Greenyard, which is still the biggest buyer of the Surinamese bananas, but they’re open to cooperations with new companies. After the merger in which Univeg was absorbed into Greenyard some years ago, the production companies that were part of Univeg were accommodated in a new company: The Fruit Farm Group. This choice was motivated by a different investment strategy. “You invest in agriculture for longer terms, particularly with a product such as apples or avocados it involves a period of 20 years,” he says.
Growing according to a natural process
On the European market, the bananas find their way to Belgium, France, Austria and Hungary. Due to the historic relationship between the Netherlands and Suriname, Chuck also sees options on the Dutch market. Since the privatisation of the farms in 2014, much has been invested in quality improvements in order to gain better access to the European market. “We hired Eduardo Melendez from one of the large banana countries as our manager to bring all procedures to order,” Chuck says. Education for employees, a feedback structure in the supply chain between farm and destination and new certificates lifted the production to a higher level. Last year, the plantations became Rainforest Alliance certified.
A better banana production isn’t the only change. The company has the ambition to bring about change in the environment. “That means we work according to principles that exist in nature instead of controlling nature and adding many chemicals. That way, not just the quality of the fruit, but the health of the soil, the environment and our workers will be better,” says Chuck. This ideal is given shape by doing research and having external knowledge. “Experts visit our plantations to tell us how to operate our companies even more naturally.”
Biodiversity on the plantation
This practically expresses itself in four pillars: a minimal disruption of the soil, development of a rich soil, minimal use of chemical means and investing in biodiversity. “That last point means we also started growing other crops besides bananas on the same plantation. We started with a plantain plantation, that is easy, because it’s comparable to bananas, but we now also grow papaya, passionfruit and coconuts on the banana plantation,” Chuck explains.
The natural method of working raises questions about the dangers of TR4 and Black Sigatoka, two problems that have the banana sector in their grip. “We fortunately don’t have TR4 in Suriname, and we have taken every precaution,” Chuck says. “We’re convinced biodiversity helps reduce the risks, so we have to continue to invest in knowledge about risk management.”
Black Sigatoka poses a small threat in Suriname, for which the necessary precautionary measures have also been taken. “We’re fortunate that we’re the only banana grower in the country, so that we have less pressure from diseases from the environment as in areas in which bananas are grown more intensely,” Chuck explains. “We’re a bit like an island.”
“You have to be alert to the signs given off early by the plant instead of responding to the disease once damage has already been done,” Chuck continues. The food for the plants must be leading rather than the use of pesticides, according to Chuck. “It’s also much better for the consumer, because they get a product with a lower MRL and a better quality, grown in harmony with nature, and it’s healthier for employees who work with fewer chemicals.”
The Fruit Farm Group
Charles de Liedekerke