Frits Popma spent 30 years flying all over the world. Fifty-four Customs authorities have stamped his passport. During his travels, he visited nearly 180 different ripening plants. “I have a lot of respect for ripeners,” he says. “Because according to other people, they never do it right.” During his travels, he sometimes ended up in weird situations. He talks about his experiences, but also looks ahead to the future.
“Ripeners always know best, but that’s how I’m learning,” Frits says. As an independent adviser with a long experience as baggage, he has a helicopter view and can make connections. “Why would something that works in one country not work in another as well?” He recently had an American customer who wanted to build a new ripening plant and came to Frits for advice. “He only wanted to use Western techniques, so I invited all Dutch companies to get round the table with him,” Frits explains his independence. “The American thus learned what was all available, so that he could choose from all of that.”
Ethylene sensor not a ripening system
“You come across some weird things,” Frits looks back on his travels. “I was at a ripening plant for more than 18,000 boxes in Iran, while it’s standard to have 1,000 boxes per banana ripening chamber in the Netherlands,” he exemplifies. In the early 1990s, he was invited by a Russian company, so Frits got on a plane. “At the Russian office, they only had four chairs, nothing else, but they did have a boat full of bananas,” he says. An impossible task. Knowledge regarding ripening is still below par in a lot of countries. “In February, I was called by a ripening plant from Mongolia. They bought a Chinese ethylene sensor and thought it was a ripening plant,” he says, surprised. “But ripening bananas is more than that, and investments in ripening techniques are supposed to last at least 20 years. So if you make a mistake, you’ll be stuck with it for the next 20 years.”
Plenty is still to be done closer to home in Europe as well. “Everyone has their own methods, but if you’re doing it right, you’ll make weekly schedules. I sometimes visit ripening plants where they have to look into each ripening cell to see if bananas of a certain colour are available.” He sees room for improvement in that regard. Besides, when the market is doing well, all bananas are yellow, but when the market is disappointing, those same bananas are suddenly too yellow. “It’s difficult to make everyone speak the same language within the sector,” Frits says.
Ripening chambers in Nairobi
Next year, Frits is expecting to travel to Africa to guide a project in Kenya, among other things. “A lot of money is in circulation there, and countries such as Kenya and Tanzania are rapidly growing,” he noticed during a visit to Kenya. Out of nothing, a company established a ripening plant in 2014, and they saw their turnover increasing to 70 million euro last year. An Italian organisation, investing from an ideological perspective, invested in 20 ripening chambers in Nairobi. This year, another 20 are set to be built. “Things are moving faster there than they are here.”
Due to the growing economy, the population has more to spend, and besides investments from Western countries, billions are flowing into Africa from China. “They have a good climate and a good geographical position,” Frits continues. Besides bananas, which are sold ripened on the domestic market, Kenya is also working on the production of avocados. “Kenya will be emerging as avocado producer, for now they can’t control quality yet, but that is going to change.”
Making demands but refusing to pay
For a lot of people all over the world, bananas are a basic food and income. Sometimes it seems as if retailers are blind to that fact, according to Frits. He refers to the news that Aldi will reduce prices this year. “Retailers are forcing growers to get all manner of certificates without paying for it,” Frits says. “Although this concerns small amounts of a few cents in Europe, it could amount to several per cents of the gross turnover in the production countries. It’s only getting worse. Supermarkets have a lot to say about it; they don’t want to pay but they do want to receive the best quality. The next step is that they’ll reduce the compensation for the ripening,” he fears. “We’ll have to wait and see what other supermarkets will do.”
“In supermarkets, the price of a kilo of Dutch apples is higher than for a kilo of bananas from Ecuador. How can that be right?” Although pressure on prices appears to be increasing on the one hand, the costs for packaging and transport are increasing on the other. An exporter could choose containers for transport, but Frits mentions the risk of delays. “It could also be the case that large companies no longer want to supply, and you have to go with small growers who can’t supply the best quality.” Added to that is the increased risk of drugs being smuggled. “Drugs are hardly ever found in batches of large companies, because they pay for additional inspections in ports,” Frits explains. To have a container inspected before it departs from Latin America, additional money has to be paid per container. Small growers can’t afford this. “That’s why there’s a risk of more narcotics being smuggled to the Netherlands.” Besides, because of low prices, it’s more appealing to ‘make some money on the side.’
Rising price of cardboard
To avoid the rising price of cardboard, the sector could decide to choose crates, something Frits researched with Willem Kokkeel some years ago. The benefit of crates is that they should save energy. Because air circulation is better, up to 30 per cent less energy is used during ripening. “That’s massive, but it’s not really getting through to people yet, because there are a few bottlenecks,” Frits says. Perhaps the smallest challenge: the crates are used as side tables in countries such as India, China and Indonesia, instead of being used to pack bananas.
A bigger challenge is setting up a global pool system. “The bad thing is that a crate has to be returned to the plantation it came from, because growers are worried diseases or moulds are spread via the crates.” A third challenge is the relatively high price. Because of all of the transport, a crate is used six times per year. For the domestic market in India a crate would be used 20 times per year, making it a more appealing option.
Frits summarised all knowledge of ripening he gained in his career in a chapter in the book Achieving Sustainable Cultivation of Bananas. “I’m proud to be part of that book. I’m not going to live forever, and it would be a waste if all of the knowledge I gained in the past 30 years were lost,” Frits concludes.