Just three months into a new trade deal supplying Arab countries with branded bananas from the Tamil Nadu district of India, the market dynamics have already shifted toward sustained profitability. Secretary of the John Pennycuick Farmers Trust (JPFT), T.K.M. Karthikeyan, talks www.freshfruitportal.com through the venture which is transforming the Theni district and propelling its banana sector to compete on an international scale.
With little infrastructure, a lack of education and an inferior supply chain, producers were forced to travel long distances to sell cheaply on the domestic wholesale market without realizing the massive potential of their fruit.
This is where the JPFT came in, and its proving to be a game changer.
"In the past there was nothing like a consortium among the farmers and they were suffering terribly because of low prices," Karthikeyan tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"It was hard for them to survive and we really were not tapping into the potential Theni bananas offer as a commodity.
"I noticed there was a big gap in the market and huge potential for our Theni bananas, and now three months into trading and we are seeing excellent results."
Aroma bananas from the Cumbum Valley
Aroma Banana is the trade arm of JPFT, the organization named after British Colonel John Pennycuick who has been revered as a demigod in remote Tamil villages for decades because of his legendary irrigation engineering work during colonial rule, which included building the Mullaperiyar Dam on the Periyar River.
Banana growing in not new for the region but doing it properly is, explains Karthikeyan.
"The Theni banana is very high quality because of the climatic conditions of the Cumbum Valley which is an excellent location to grow bananas all year round. It's surrounded by mountains and the weather is perfect with temperatures between 22 and 26 degrees Celsius.
"Since April, regular shipments have been dispatched to Turkey, Dubai and Iran with around 20 metric tons (MT) going at a time. For the moment, these markets are so good we are shipping on a daily basis.
"Because we can grow and harvest bananas in the valley all the year round we can make significant deals with international markets that will secure good prices for the farmers."
The Cumbum Valley, also known for its grape growing prowess, also has excellent soil for the Cavendish Grand Nain with typical lengths starting from 17 centimeters to 27 centimeters, along with a sweeter taste compared with varieties from Ecuador and the Philippines.
"The Theni banana has a long shelf life of approximately 42 days. Our farmers cut the banana at between 70% and 80% maturity. The glucose content is 21% compared to 14.5% of the Grain Nain from Ecuador and this is also what gives our bananas a superior taste and excellent appearance."
Improvement in techniques
Learning from banana masters like Chiquita has inspired the Tamil Nadu sector to adopt a much more professional approach to cultivation, harvesting, packing and distribution that adheres to global standards and allows this Indian banana a gateway into new international markets.
"We have a harvesting team that goes to the field to harvest directly and transit the fruit in the proper crates and foam sheets are introduced between banana hands to protect them from damage and therefore maintain quality.
"Then they go to our packhouse operation where we adhere to the strict international standards and prepare consignments for shipments."
Of the 453 farmers belonging to the JPFT, only a small proportion are currently growing bananas but the tide is turning as farmers growing produce like chillies, beetroot and tomatoes express interest to switch crops.
With exponential growth, Karthikeyan forecasts expansion both in terms of cultivated land and export markets.
"As of now, 13,000 acres (5,261 hectares) are being cultivated but I would predict that in a year or two we will increase to around 30,000 acres (12,140) and this expansion is already in the planning stage."
Tamil Nadu's banana future looks bright
"People are very impressed with what has been achieved so far and they see this is a much better way and there are profits to be made. This is a good deal for the entire farming community of the Cumbum Valley and we encourage more people to get involved.
"Currently we have 453 farmers but not all of them are banana growers at this stage, although we are seeing more and more farmers of other produce wanting to make a change over to growing bananas because they see the profits on offer.
"We are very much interested in exploring other potentially profitable markets such as the European Union countries and are currently looking for good buyers in these countries so we can begin to negotiate new trade deals."