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“Higher standards in supermarkets offers space for fairtrade bananas”
With short breaks caused by the two World Wars, the German Port family has been importing bananas since 1912; the family was thus one of the pioneers in the import of this exotic fruit. In the 60’s, the company started importing exclusively for Dole via the new company Eurobana. At the end of the decade came its own label: Golden B. In 2001, banana imports were taken over by a new company owned by the family: Port International Bananas for the conventional bananas and Port International Organics for the organic and fairtrade bananas.
First organic Fairtrade bananas
Port International imports bananas from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Its relationship with the latter dates back to the 80’s, when the then US President Ronald Reagan imposed an import ban on the Central American country. "At the time, we were importing ships full of bananas from Nicaragua via the port of Ghent," explains Mike. "Those were interesting years."
In 1997, the company started importing Fairtrade bananas. In 2000 the first organic and organic fairtrade bananas were imported. "We started with a couple of pallets. Everyone laughed at us," recalls Mike. The market for organic products was much smaller than today. Moreover, it was claimed that organic bananas were impossible to produce because of the humid climate in the growing countries. It was believed that there would always be a need for pesticides. Especially Peru, the Ecuadorian province of El Oro and the Dominican Republic, have a drier climate, which makes organic cultivation possible in those areas.
Small growers, great knowledge
"Many companies are specialised in the trade of conventional bananas and do so in large volumes. We chose to be strong in organic and Fairtrade bananas. "That was a good choice. In the years that followed, the volume of organic Fairtrade bananas became increasingly important. "We see that our customers in Western Europe have many questions about the combination of organic and Fairtrade," says the importer. "In Eastern Europe, there is particular demand for organic bananas." This has partly to do with the lower disposable income in these countries.
Trading with organic Fairtrade bananas is challenging. "You need a lot of knowledge. It's a very different market than that of conventional bananas. "In Peru, in a valley around the Chira River where most bananas are grown, there are around 4,000 growers. Most of them own lands that are no larger than 1 hectare. "We help the growers with financing, technical support, quality control, packaging… basically all the steps necessary for shipping." The German importer has nine employees who provide permanent support to the growers.
Efficiency and social projects
Most of the growers are affiliated to one of the twelve cooperatives and associations in the region with which Port International cooperates. Each cooperative or association has between 200 and 400 members. "We also fund projects to improve their efficiency. Since there are so many small growers, we also help them to get certificates, such as Global GAP and Fairtrade. We are working on a long-term relationship with the growers."
With this in mind, Port International supports several projects each year to help local communities. Last year, for example, we invested in new housing after an earthquake in Ecuador made many families homeless. Since 2015 we are supporting a football project in Peru. This project aims to provide children with good leisure and prevent them from just hanging around the streets.
Two years ago, Mike Port started importing bananas from Haiti. The project has since been halted for some time due to political unrest in the country, but he hopes to take it up again this year. "The new president, sworn in early February, supports banana production and agriculture in general. He is committed to developing the export of agricultural products," explains Mike. "We believe there is a market for those bananas and that we’ll thereby improve the living standards of the population. It is not an easy project, but it's worth it." An advantage is that many Haitians work on banana plantations in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. "The knowledge is there; they know how to work with bananas," continues Mike. "We are ready to give the project a second chance. It's a big challenge, but there is also a lot of potential. "
New standard for supermarkets
There is certainly a lot of competition in the conventional banana market. Furthermore, Mike sees that there is increasing emphasis on quality. This is reflected in the number of certificates required. Besides Global GAP, we are now seeing a trend in which grocery stores also want a Rainforest Alliance certification. "That seems to be the new standard for supermarkets."
Because of the higher standards, the German importer argues that there is room in the market for conventional Fairtrade bananas. "In the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Switzerland there is a supply of Fairtrade bananas, but many countries don’t have access to them yet." In Germany only very small volumes of conventional Fairtrade bananas are sold. "There is room for a supermarket that specialise in Fairtrade bananas to be the first in certain countries. You can build a name with Fairtrade bananas." The difference in price compared to conventional bananas that are Global GAP and Rainforest Alliance certified is marginal.
Mike does not consider retailers who are exploring the possibility of importing directly as a threat. "It is important to be able to offer added value," he argues. As an example he cites the import of organic Fairtrade bananas. Port International handles around 70 containers per week. If there is a problem in a production area, a shortage could be completed with products from other production areas. "If a retailer imports a smaller volume and something happens, that supermarket will immediately have a problem." The flexibility that the company has is partly due to its structure. Port International imports bananas, but has no ripening facilities. As a result, it is able to provide whatever service its customers need. "We work in partnership with some good ripening firms, but if a retailer itself invests in ripening chambers, we can supply the bananas green. We have the freedom to make those decisions."
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