How the Asoguabo story began

The first shipment in 1998.

The first shipment in 1998.

Today there are several other small farmer associations and a plantation in Ecuador that also produce fairtrade bananas. But Asoguabo is the pioneer that has grown into the largest fairtrade banana producer in Ecuador.

Asoguabo was founded in 1997, but it all started in the beginning of the 1990’s. That’s when the small banana farmers decided to take their future into their own hands. The big multinationals weren’t interested in the small farmers’ problems. A small farmer didn’t stand a chance negotiating with the buyers, who did as they pleased and changed the rules of the game when it suited them. The ups and downs in the market price for bananas meant low incomes, non-existent social benefits and tough working conditions. The small farmers were disappearing and the banana export was starting to concentrate to the biggest banana producers.

UROCAL (Union Regional de Organizaciónes Campesinas del Litoral) decided to contact the foundation Solidaridad in Holland, which had helped small producers in Bolivia join Fair Trade, and had also developed the fairtrade labelling system. The foundation helped the farmers get a fairtrade certification, find international markets and create demand in Europe. UROCAL worked with the farmers to create supply.

In 1996 the farmers founded the export company EXPOECOAGRO. Of the founding farmer groups, Asoguabo was the only one who went all the way and founded a legal entity. The founding members were 14, but in practice 20-25 farmers were working together.

EXPOECOAGRO only lasted a year. It failed partly because of the weather phenomenon El Niño which destroyed many farms, partly because UROCAL left the company, and partly because of quality problems and the fact that the farmers were dependent on the company BANANOR which exported the fruit.

But some of Asoguabo’s farmers didn’t want to give up. With the help of Solidaridad they contacted the importer Agrofair. The company didn’t want to import bananas from Ecuador, which had a reputation of quality problems. But the farmers insisted, and managed to convince Agrofair to give them a chance.

This is the testimony of  Wilson Navarrete and Jorge Ramírez, Asoguabo’s first secretary and president, in a history of the association:

-In october 1998 Agrofair finally found a buyer in Swizerland, who agreed to a trial under certain conditions. They said: ”you arrange the shipment, you pay for it and we won’t pay you until we’ve sold the fruits. If we can’t sell them, we don’t pay you”. It was a tough test for Asoguabo, and some of us had lost all our fruit in El Niño.

The first container wasn’t filled in the port or in the farms, but in a street in the centre of El Guabo. Everybody helped as the whole town was curiously watching. This is the testimony of Ramírez, Abelino Mora and Rony Lazo:

-We couldn’t buy boxes because the seller wanted to be paid in advance. So we collected leftover boxes from the farmers, borrowed some and bought some. We didn’t have the possibility to choose. But we managed to come up with 1080 boxes.

-Three weeks later we heard that the fruits had passed the first check, with a few complaints about old boxes. The fruits ripened well and when they were sold we got paid. That was the proof that we could keep going. The importer wanted a second trial shipment, which was made in november that same year. The bananas arrived in december, all went well and they started ordering from us every week.

In february 1999 Asoguabo and Agrofair agreed on shipments of one container a week, and after half a year they were already delivering three containers a week.

 

Source: Sistematización de la experiencia de la Asociación de pequeños productores bananeros El Guabo (SNV Ecuador)

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