With the rising global demand for bananas, Malaysia is hoping to be able to bank on Cavendish banana exports to China, the Middle East, South Korea and Japan, among others. Malaysia is quite suited for growing bananas. It has fertile soil, consistently warm temperatures and rain. In most places in the country, strong winds and extreme temperatures are rare.
Datuk Tom Chow Chin Kiat, founder and executive director of Agrofresh International Group Sdn Bhd, saw this as an opportunity to turn bananas into an export product. “I was in the business of trading bananas overseas. I was buying the fruit from farms in the Philippines. But the demand kept increasing and the supply could not keep up,” he says.
For the two years Chow was in the Philippines, he sent 150 to 200 containers of bananas a week to China. The demand was also rising in China, Europe and the Middle East. Growing health awareness in Western markets was also driving up consumption.
“But in 2012, there were some tensions between the Philippines and China [the main importer]. I became unsuccessful and lost a lot of money. So I thought, why not get involved in the plantation business?” says Chow.
In 2013, he set up a company in Malaysia and tied up with Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) to engage in R&D. His goal was to create a standard operating procedure (SOP) that contract farms could use to produce export-grade Cavendish bananas.
The Cavendish variety is best suited for international trade as it is more resilient to the effects of global travel, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Bananas meant for export also need to be of a certain size or weight so they can be sold at a higher grade and with better prices. Farmers must learn how to time the harvest according to the amount of time the fruit will be in transit to various destinations. For instance, bananas shipped to the Middle East need to be harvested earlier than those headed for China. If not, the bananas may expand and explode in transit.
The SOP covers areas such as farm management methods, irrigation technology, cultivation practices and the composition of fertiliser. Chow’s team and UPM are in the midst of patenting the SOP.