Traditional banana transport in Africa. Picture from youngrobv's photostream at flickr.
There was a great story in New Agriculturist a while back - before I went on vacation - and I was a little remiss in not highlighting it. It actually contained some Chiquita news that could be seen as positive, as well as a few other interesting developments in the world of African bananas (Africa is the place where bananas are most important - in many nations on the continent, people rely on the fruit for up to eighty percent of their daily caloric intake. So fighting banana disease there is hugely important.)
The most interesting thing was the Chiquita-related item that reported the company's desire to source Cavendish bananas from new plantations in Angola and Mozambique. I've reported on this before, but there was new detail here. The first bananas are expected to be produced by 2010, the article said, with a goal of deriving up to 30% of the company's exports for the European market from Africa. That's a mammoth amount of bananas, and a first for Africa, which barely exports any of fruit right now.
There are pluses and minuses to this. The plus is economic development, which is definitely needed in that part of Africa. The minus is that the development offered by the banana industry isn't always positive (though it is generally the same as the development offered by other multinationals.) There's a chance for Chiquita to build a new kind of economic model here, and the question is whether the governments of the nations hosting the company are going to look at the example of the banana industry in Latin America as a cautionary tale, or as a template.
Chiquita, too, has a chance to experiment with the banana supply chain - which is something it will have to do as the industry goes through a necessary transformation as it reacts to advancing banana disease. I also wonder whether Chiquita is prepared for another possibility: that its crop in Africa will be exposed to new disease. Panama Disease is already a problem in parts of Africa, and another newly-emerged and incurable disease, banana xanthomonas wilt, (BXW) has been devastating the fruit across the African highlands. BXW spreads faster than Panama Disease, and it does (link is to a PDF file) affect the Cavendish.
What's important to remember here is that the banana industry, unlike in Latin America, where it is waiting for disease to arrive, in this case, it is bringing fruit to the disease. This is exactly how the new outbreak of Panama Disease that I write about in my book began.
Again, there's more to it than a corporation may be able - or is set up - to consider.
Microbiologist/entrepreneur Ann Muli. Photo: New Agriculturist/Zablon Odihambo.
The second piece of news is the emergence of another, smaller banana business operation: a Kenyan company called Mimea has recently begun offering tissue-cultured bananas as a commercial product ("Tissue Culture" means that the initial banana plants are cultivated in the lab; they arrive at the plantation disease-free.) I'm not aware of any other business venture doing anything like this in Africa. Mimea is also unique in that it is owned by a woman - microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Anne Muli.
The company produces sterile seedlings and initial growth material for other crops - primarily flowers - but the extension into bananas is exciting, as it helps address Africa's technological and economic development through local ownership. That, to me, has the potential to be more important, in the long run, than Chiquita's massive venture. New Agriculturist ran an excellent profile of Muli last March.
There should be more African banana news in a few weeks, following October's World Banana Conference in Kenya.