India bananas seek bigger share of global market

Stall selling bananas
Image caption Over 30 varieties of banana are grown in Tamil Nadu

India, the largest banana producing country in the world, is vying for a bigger share of the global market.

An ambitious plan has been drawn up by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to export Indian-grown bananas globally to China, East Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

It is estimated that the annual trade could be worth $1.2bn (£750m).

The plan is to create a global brand for Tamil Nadu Bananas, along the lines of Florida Oranges and California Apples.

But as local production is unable to even meet domestic demand, questions are being raised about the prospects of the entire project.

Post-harvest losses

The CII is confident that, with a gestation period of 18 months, its plan would succeed.

"If the post-harvest losses alone can be avoided then exporting 28 million tonnes of bananas would not be a problem," according to B Thiagarajan, chairman of the National Cold Chain Task Force at the CII.

Although India is one of the largest producers of many fruits and vegetables, post-harvest facilities are still in their infancy, especially as there is no cold chain infrastructure - with the exception of a few commodities such as potatoes, Mr Thiagarajan explains.

The annual post-harvest loss in perishable fruits and vegetables is estimated to be around 80,000 crores of Indian rupees ($16.8bn; £10.4bn).

Lack of trust

Even though the CII is confident, farmers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the largest banana growing area in the country, are very sceptical about the entire plan and its chances of succeeding.

They fear that the scheme would fail to benefit the growers.

"We have a bitter experience in the case of exporting mango pulp to many countries and the CII never came to our rescue during that crisis," says Rama Gounder, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Agriculturalists Association.

"Due to the volatile political climate in the Middle east and the recession in the European and the US markets, tens of thousands of mango farmers suffered heavy losses over the last two years, but no support came our way."

The CII's Mr Thiagarajan agrees that farmers in India have little faith in the corporate sector.

"There is a trust deficit, which we are trying to overcome," he says.

Farmers insist that although they have improved productivity over the years, their socio-economic conditions remain the same.

"Indian farmers grow more, but farmers themselves have not grown" says Mr Gounder.

Improved productivity

The CII says the formulation of a cold chain infrastructure will go a long way in avoiding post-harvest loss, which alone could make banana exports a profit-making business.

Research done by the CII and the National Banana Research Centre (NBRC) in Tiruchirappalli has shown that the post-harvest banana loss is around 30% in Tamil Nadu.

MM Mustaffa, of the NBRC, told the BBC that efforts are ongoing to reduce this loss to 10%, thereby saving wastage and also helping farmers make a profit.

Image caption Methods are being introduced to ripen bananas evenly

The initial plan of the CII, along with the NBRC, is to strengthen the post-harvest facility and to export fruit that in the past would have been thrown away.

"Delivering properly ripened high quality bananas will provide a high price realisation" Dr Mustaffa says.

But farmers are not convinced about the plan and say they should be involved in the hammering out of the cold chain infrastructure National Action Plan.

The CII acknowledges that its ability to engage with the farmers has been low so far and aims to improve it significantly.

Economic analysts say that unless a strong bond between farmers and buyers is forged, the entire plan could collapse.

But Mr Thiagarajan and his team are optimistic.

"Farmers in many part of Tamil Nadu have already started producing superior quality bananas, thanks to the research work done by the NBRC," he says.

"Also, many Tamil Nadu farmers visited Israel and learnt better production and harvesting methods.

"We produce good bananas, but we are not ripening them properly, that is the problem this project will address.

"Farmers are now being educated to hasten the process of ripening the fruit by inducing ethylene gas in a controlled way so that ripening is even."

Global competition

India's anticipated 8% growth in gross domestic product will not happen unless, and until, the agriculture sector is able to grow between 3-4 %, according to the CII.

Its studies show that without modernisation, the agriculture sector cannot achieve such growth.

India is a low cost agriculture producer and if the quality of ripening alone is improved, then the farmers can get higher value for the same produce, according to the NBRC.

Per hectare production of bananas in India is very low compared to many countries, encouraging a rapid change to farming technology.

Industry leaders say that competition from the Caribbean and South American producers can be effectively challenged.

The NBRC points out that the Cavendish brand of banana is produced in these countries and exported to the European market.

But with more than 30 varieties of banana being produced in Tamil Nadu, it notes that the global market will be offered more variety at a very competitive cost.

Whether or not this ambitious plan will succeed, is the big billion-dollar question.

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