The end is near for baby bananas

– In december, I and the 41 babybanana farmers will be crying, says the agroengineer Edward Delgado.

We are on our way up into the mountains to visit the baby banana producers in Muyuyacu and La Florida. In the end of the year, Asoguabo will most probably stop exporting baby banana, if the farmers haven’t been able to find new markets for their products. Baby banana just doesn’t sell in Europe. Maybe it’s too expensive and too unfamiliar. The babybanana, or orito, constitutes only one per cent of Asoguabo’s total production.

La Florida communal packing station.

La Florida communal packing station.

Up in La Florida, by a winding, muddy road, the farmers are packaging their oritos at a communal packing station. These baby bananas are going to Finland and other european countries, and will be in Finnish supermarkets in the last days of march.

Julia Heraz and her family own one of the farms.

Julia Heraz is weighing baby bananas before packing them into small plastic bags. One bag weighs 220 grams.

Julia Heraz is weighing baby bananas before packing them into small plastic bags. One bag weighs 220 grams.

– I don’t know what we’re going to do. We have to try to find new markets for the orito. We live here, and we don’t know any other way to make a living. But in Cuenca, they pay only 50 cents per bunch of oritos, when Fair Trade pays 2,10 dollars for half a bunch.

They can start cultivating regular bananas, which they already do on a small scale. But it’s harder to make banana grow in the mountains, where it’s colder than down on the plains. It’s also drier in the winter, which means the bananas need irrigation. In La Florida there is no irrigation system. And the regular bananas are also vulnerable to the disease sigatoka negra, which oritos are not.

Rosario Heraz.

Rosario Heraz.

– It costs 3000 dollars per hectare to buy six hectares of land, which we need to cultivate banana. We can’t afford that, says Julia’s sister Rosario Heraz.

Another problem for the orito farmers is Asoguabo’s new rule that every producer should be able to produce a minimum of 48 boxes of banana per week, in order not to be suspended from the co-op.

– Today we produce 10-15 boxes per week, says Heraz.

Rocío Heraz and Hugo Marquez are bringing baby bananas for packing

Rocío Heraz and Hugo Marquez are bringing baby bananas for packing

But the family wants to continue being part of Asoguabo and Fair Trade.

– We get food packages every month, school materials for our children every year, and other social benefits, says Rosario Heraz.

The baby banana grows naturally in the mountains, and is organic. The farmers have only sold their oritos commercially for 6-7 years. It started when an employee of Asoguabo was driving down from Cuenca with his family, and paused at the side of the road where locals were selling their oritos to people passing by. He asked one of the locals if he would like to try exporting his oritos, and the answer was yes. Asoguabo’s buyer corporation, Agrofair, was interested in trying to sell oritos in Europe.

– We investigated how he packing and transport could be arranged, and copied other countries’ experiences. We started working with a group of producers, which kept growing and growing as more and more farmers wanted to join, says Delgado.

Today, all orito farmers in the province El Oro belong to Asoguabo. The banana giant Del Monte used to buy some orito, but at a low price. When Asoguabo and Fair Trade entered, everyone wanted in because Fair Trade paid a better price. A few years ago, Del Monte disappeared.

But the baby banana didn’t become the expected export success. Maybe the consumers need more information, says the agroengineer Patricio Jaramillo.

– The baby banana is tastier and sweeter than regular banana. Especially in milkshakes. You don’t need any extra sugar, because the baby banana is so sweet in itself.

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