Growing organic bananas in Latin America

Growing organic bananas in Latin America

The DEROSE plantation is in Ecuador’s Santa Elena province. It is a plantation of over 1,000 hectares with 385 hectares currently in production. Today, DEROSE is producing 17,000 tons of organic bananas per year and employs 300 people. The company has international certifications, such as Organic NOP/CE,Global Gap, and Fairtrade.

Expanding to Americas with DEROSE

Compagnie Fruitière is the largest producer in the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific region. It produces, transports, ripens, and markets more than 900,000 tons of fruit and vegetables, including 750,000 tons of bananas, primarily to the European markets.

Organic bananas are one of the fastest-growing fresh produce categories. Today’s organic bananas represent over 10% of all the bananas consumed in the European and North American markets. In 2017, Compagnie Fruitièredecided to increase its organic banana farming operations and expanded to Latin America to meet the growing demand in Europe and North America markets.

The Group acquired over 1,000 hectares in a semiarid, traditionally non-banana region of Ecuador, and established DEROSE as its catalyst to increase its organic banana production.

An ideal location to grow organic bananas

The Santa Elena Province was selected for its unique weather conditions. It is located at the tip of the peninsula just eleven kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, bordering the path of the Humboldt Current. The farm has two natural boundaries: in the southwest the Pacific Ocean, and the northeast by the Chongon-Colonche mountain range.

With predominantly dry weather, this location has a natural habitat that helps to prevent the development of fungal diseases that are typically found inthe fertile rainforest valleys where bananas are generally grown.

With the considerable support from Mother Nature, DEROSE has successfully grown bananas by using the safest and most efficient organically certified inputs and practices. While also keeping a first-rate natural control on fungal diseases and maintaining excellent organic productivity.

Our farm is strategically located near the Azucar dam and benefits from an abundant water supply, hydroelectric energy as well as easy access to roads and proximity to shipping ports.

Infrastructures & certifications for higher quality production

DEROSE’s mission is to produce a 100% organic banana that compares to the quality standardsof the best-in-class bananas produced aroundthe world.

To meet our objectives required considerable capital investment initiatives in infrastructure to ensure best-in-class production results. DEROSE is optimizing critical processes for effective and efficient operational results, such as:

  • Accessing water piping from the Azucar dam irrigation canals, water reservoirs, irrigation, and drainage infrastructure,

  • Double-row planting to ensure population control; ease of identification; avoiding soil compaction by limiting foot traffic on the planted beds; adding natural cover crops that provide added nutrients and assist in weed control,

  • Our world-class packing plant facilities have ample capacity for meeting any packing pattern requests by our customers. Additionally, to prevent post-packing quality issues, long conveyor pre-packing belts were installed to ensure a thorough inspection and adequate time for drying and healing of the crown-cut,

  • Quick refrigeration guidelines after packing

The result is a healthy development of our banana mats producing a uniform stem size, appearance, and finger length. Our productivity standards and quality results are equivalent to typical outcomes in conventional banana farming.

Another critical requirement for meeting our quality objectives is the management of the farm organic and environmental standards, which are strictly monitored and enforced by our certification partners. From our labor force to our technical teams, each process follows strict internal guidelines of traceability, hygiene, and safety protocols to ensure the highest quality.

International certifications

DEROSE is committed to the wellbeing and development of its labor force and all the environmental challenges of growing bananas. As such, in addition to being fully committed to organic farming, it has also achieved Fairtrade certifications.

Governmental authorizations

Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognize and respect Nature’s rights in order to ensure the highest quality of life for the population.

DEROSE plantations have earned environmental licenses for the efficient control of the quality of water, climate, air, and soil. It also has taken measures to prevent the degradation of ecosystems through collaborative management of environmental resources.

Vertical management of logistics, transportation, and distribution

DEROSE monitors all logistics and transportation aspects through direct and close collaboration with all supply-chain partners—from the soil of our farms to our customer’s distribution centers.

DEROSE ships from the ports of Guayaquil and Posorja, with one of the quickest sourcing transit times in the industry due to its strategic location. DEROSE is also BASC certified to ensure commerce security.

Compagnie Fruitière distributes DEROSE’s production in the European market with a client base in France, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Italy, UK and Germany. Distribution on the North American market is our next strategic objective.

A commitment to fair trade production and farming

DEROSE, as a subsidiary of Compagnie Fruitière, is committed to following the company’s legendary philosophy to producing to the highest ethical, environmental, and social standards.

The Santa Elena Province is often considered one of the most neglected rural regions of Ecuador. DEROSE’s role within the neighboring communities will lead to greater access to improved working opportunities and will contribute to the development of our local communities.

Finally, DEROSE is launching auditing and benchmark standards to compare, and continuously improve on its environmentally friendly processes.

The SCB banana, much more than a tasty fruit

The SCB banana, much more than a tasty fruit

Famed for its unique taste, the SCB banana from Côte d’Ivoire also embodies a model of cultivation that respects people and the environment.

The first archaeological evidence of banana cultivation, which was discovered in Papua New Guinea, dates back 7,000 years. At that time, only a few seed varieties proliferated, until their natural crossing gave rise to seedless fruits. Banana cultivation was domesticated over the course of migrations and millennia and spread to the five continents. Whether plantain or dessert, its flavour and prodigious nutritional qualities make it one of the most popular fruits in the world today.

A fully-fledged economic sector

It is rich in minerals, fibre, carbohydrates and vitamins and low in fat. Filled with powerful antioxidants – dopamine and vitamin C – it helps maintain the nervous and digestive systems and energy metabolism. Originating from the Cavendish genetic variety (named in honour of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who introduced the fruit into Europe in the 19th century), the dessert banana is sweet and tender. It also represents 60% of the world’s banana production.

In Africa, it is an economic sector in its own right, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Ghana. Côte d’Ivoire, the leading African producer, produces more than 300,000 tonnes of bananas each year, mainly for the European Union. Appreciated for their intensity and tender flesh, bananas grown on the African continent are reputed to be more fragrant than their Latin American cousins. It’s a question of the soil, but not only that. Soil acidity, sunshine and humidity shape the flavour of the fruit, as do the daily care given to them, the quality of soil drainage and fertilisation. However, transport, ripening in a controlled atmosphere and the growers’ experience also contribute to the development of the taste.

An incomparable flavour

The SCB banana from Côte d’Ivoire which is produced by the Société de Culture Bananière, a Compagnie Fruitière group subsidiary, and which has won the “Flavour of the Year” award for its taste qualities several times, reflects this reality. The SCB, which was established in 1959, was initially made up of a few farmers. Over time, the subsidiary has refined and developed all its agricultural techniques to produce – as consumers say – to “a tasty, tender and fragrant fruit, which surprises by the regularity of its quality”.

Social and Environmental Responsibility

The SCB, which employs more than 6,700 people in Côte d’Ivoire and covers 75% of Ivorian banana production, has also established a unique work ethic in the region. Based on respect for people and the environment, its Social and Environmental Responsibility (SER) policy has transformed the daily lives of its employees and local populations.  Thanks to concrete initiatives taken in most areas of daily life, SCB staff and local residents now have access to medical centres, vaccination and information campaigns, housing, schools, vocational training, transport, infrastructure and decent working conditions that reduce the use of pesticides.

The SCB has obtained various certifications (ISO 14001 – Global Gap – Sedex – Vigeo – Fair Trade Max Havelaar and Ceres) and is audited each year by independent bodies. Finally, as the leading producer of fair trade and organic bananas in the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) zone, Compagnie Fruitière is perpetuating its environmental initiatives through a partnership with WWF France. Banana cultivation, a catalyst for ever more virtuous agriculture?

The fast-growing organic bananas sector

The fast-growing organic bananas sector

Organic farming is on the rise and, despite the constraints linked to their production in tropical environments, bananas are following the trend.

Driven by general awareness of health and the environment, the organic food market experienced unprecedented growth between 2000 and 2016. Agricultural areas have increased by a factor of 3.3, the number of organic farms by 9.6, and more than a hundred countries currently have regulations in place. The fact is that beyond its impact on soil and consumer health, organic farming is also a tool for managing natural resources, as it promotes food security. Take, for example, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which used to be regularly hit by food crises. The rehabilitation of one million hectares of organic land has enabled the establishment of food self-sufficiency for 100,000 people and the curbing of deforestation.

In the tropics

Tropical fruits such as bananas, avocados and mangoes are not immune to the trend, although their production requires an exceptional combination of heat, humidity and rainfall. Unfortunately, these conditions are also conducive to the development of fungi and parasites that thrive in the tropics from January to December in the absence of winter frost.

In conventional farming, the use of fungicides, soil drainage and, for bananas, leaf thinning and protective sleeves protect the fruit from pest attacks and thus satisfy world demand. In organic farming, the situation is becoming more complicated, especially for bananas. No natural treatment is currently able to control the black sigatoka, a fungus that can decimate half a banana plantation in a few days. This is all the more so as the golden fruit is less resistant compared to avocados. In organic farming, this characteristic translates into increased efforts, more care and handling.

The avocado tree is a solid tree that is capable of reaching a height of 20 metres and which can survive cold spells up to -1° C depending on the species. Its water requirements range from 1,200 to 1,600 mm annually, and, thanks to its great genetic diversity, it can adapt to various climates, as long as it does not freeze and its soil is drained. Between 2014 and 2015, the production of organic avocados almost tripled, rising from 9% to 24%. As for the banana tree, it is an ephemeral herbaceous plant from 3 to 10 metres high, very sensitive to temperature variations, water-demanding and predisposed to mould. Its fruits are produced when a constant temperature of at least 10°C prevails, the humidity level is high, rainfall reaches at least 3,000 mm/year and the soil is regularly drained. Among its advantages are the facts the plant is perennial and its growth lasts only between 7 and 9 months. Only 1% of the 118 million tonnes of bananas produced each year are organic, which still seems low for the most consumed fruit in the world.

Inside organic banana plantations

As the leading producer of fair trade and organic bananas in the ACP zone, Compagnie Fruitière recently signed a partnership with WWF France to continue implementing environmental initiatives. The group’s organic banana plantations are thus established in drier environments close to healthy watercourses in northern Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

There, the banana trees are evenly coated with organic paraffinic oil, which is able to keep parasites away in these latitudes. Farmers use essential oils to fight fungal diseases during the post-harvest period. During growth, compost made from cocoa dehulling waste (the thin bark that surrounds the bean) acts as a natural fertiliser rich in organic minerals. Weeds are controlled by hand weeding or by using a legume cover crop. This permaculture enables the suppression of weeds, reduction of evaporation, provision of more nutrients to banana trees and aeration of the soil, thanks to the deep roots of legumes.

New plantation in Ecuador

To extend its organic production to other regions of the world and intensify its practice of increasingly virtuous agriculture, the group recently acquired a 150-hectare organic plot in Ecuador, near Guayaquil. A small country wedged between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is nevertheless a major banana producing country exporting nearly 6 million tons of bananas each year. It also has the double advantage of a dry climate and a highly qualified workforce trained in the most advanced farming practices. Finally, its exceptional plant diversity can be a source of inspiration concerning natural solutions for producers.

The end of labels and plastic bags?

The end of labels and plastic bags?

To reduce its environmental impact, Compagnie Fruitière will soon adopt two new techniques: natural branding and fully compostable bags.

By 2050, production and consumption patterns in the EU will have to be based on the so-called circular economy model. This is a virtuous model that limits the waste of resources and the production of waste by producers, distributors and consumers. There is competition for solutions among the players in the agri-food sector, who are committed to this ecological transition.

No stickers or plastic

Natural laser branding, which is being studied by Compagnie Fruitière, is an innovation particularly adapted to the organic sector. Devised by the Spanish start-up Laser Food, this process allows the skin of bananas to be tattooed directly without using ink or denaturing the fruit. The laser simply depigments the skin superficially in order to record the necessary information on it. This technology, applied to all of Compagnie Fruitière’s organic and fair trade banana production, would eliminate more than 2 million plastic bags and as many labels each year. Anticipating the next EU environmental regulations, the group is already positioning itself as a pioneer in environmentally friendly distribution.

Compostable bags here and there

At the same time, the Innovation department is conducting research into fully compostable packaging bags, bio-sourced bags made of organic matter (corn or potato) and capable of degrading completely in the domestic composter. This technology would facilitate recycling by the end consumer and anticipate the European strategy of eliminating all non-recyclable packaging by 2030.

Far from the supermarkets, there are other challenges in Africa’s banana plantations of Africa. There, the bananas are protected from birds, direct sunlight and friction by means of non-recyclable plastic protection sleeves. Total production would drop from 30% to 50% without these protections, which demonstrates their importance. After use, they are then collected and returned to suppliers for re-use or destruction in approved centres. However, a small number of these sleeves can fly into the wild and become dispersed in the region’s fields or waterways. To reduce this risk to a strict minimum, the Innovation department is currently testing fully compostable banana protection sleeves. However, they must be more resistant, just like the compostable bags found in supermarket fruit and vegetable aisles.

Various customers have already expressed their interest in these alternative solutions that resonate with consumers. Committed to an eco-design strategy, Compagnie Fruitière is studying other processes and actions in order to develop an increasingly sustainable and eco-responsible agriculture.

The delicacy of bananas

The delicacy of bananas

Bananas are fragile fruits that require a lot of care and inspections from flowering to consumption. The journey and life of an elegant fruit.

Every day in Africa and Latin America, expert hands cultivate banana trees, which are transient but productive plants. Bananas, which are harvested all year round, are fast-growing (about 9 months) perennial fruits. Although there are now more than 1,000 varieties, Cavendish dessert bananas account for more than half of the world’s production. Soft, sweet, immaculate and pampered, a Cavendish can pass through the hands of more than fifty people before landing on our plates.

Cultivation and harvesting: precise actions

Five months after planting the cuttings or shoots, flowering starts on a trunk essentially composed of rolled leaves. Then comes the banana cluster comprising “hands”, the bunches, and “fingers” which are the fruits. Bananas are sensitive to cold, wind, temperature variations, mould, insects and shocks and require a lot of gentleness and care. Growers bustle about in plantations where the soil is regularly drained. They remove dead leaves, measure, fertilise, remove pistils and parasites, stake the trees, while checking for latex drips and tracking parasites or fungi. They also do not forget to remove the suckers that form at the foot of the parent plant threatening the survival of the banana tree. This is called suckering. Incidentally, at harvest time, only one successor sucker will be preserved. Around the sixth month, the clusters are protected with a sheath. This protective bag also creates a micro-climate conducive to fruit growth.

Once the bananas have reached the desired size and enter the sleeping phase naturally, the sheaths are removed and separators are placed between each hand. This period during which the fruits slow down their respiration and therefore their ripening, is often compared to a form of hibernation. This is the time when the harvest can begin. Cut manually with a sharp gesture, the clusters, which produce up to 250 bananas, are carried over the shoulder and gently placed in bins suspended from cables running through the plantation. Once at the packing station, they are then cut into bunches, soaked and rubbed in an aluminium sulphate bath to remove any latex residue or stubborn insect.

Prepared for the long journey

The aesthetic quality of the still-green bananas is inspected by graders before packaging. Those destined for the European market must meet strict standards in terms of size, morphology and colorimetry. Those that do not conform are immediately discarded. After having been sorted, weighed and labelled, the compliant bunches are then carefully placed in perforated and aerated boxes. Quality checkers then check the information displayed on the packages, such as category, final destination and traceability code. The packages are then placed on pallets which also have bar codes. Once they arrive at the port of departure, the pallets leave in closed and ventilated cold rooms, where the temperature ranges from 13° to 14°. They will travel under these conditions so that their sleep phase will be extended for the duration of the journey.

For example, bananas produced in Africa by the Société de Culture Bananière (SCB), one of Compagnie Fruitière’s subsidiaries, are first loaded onto ships in Douala, Cameroon, then in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Transport, which can last between 10 and 15 days, is just as important as the soil of the plantations and the sunshine or the humidity all year round. Thermometers and fans keep green bananas asleep in ship holds. A simple variation of a few tenths of a degree could trigger a too-rapid ripening, or conversely, cause curls due to the cold. Once landed in European ports, 3% of the packages (about 250 pallets) are examined in minute detail to check whether the size, curvature and even the white of the flesh conform to European standards and the indicated category. Checks are also made to ensure the fruit does not have damaged crowns or traces of latex.

Ripening and consumption

Before being delivered to traders, the fruit must still resume their ripening cycle, placed in a ripening room. In a few days, in an atmosphere controlled at about 17°, the starch is transformed into sugar, the skin turns yellow and the flesh softens. The bananas delivered to customers, which are delicious but still fragile, must be carefully extracted from their carton one bunch at a time. When stored outside a refrigerator, they can then retain their beautiful ochre colour and sweet taste for a week.

Quality manager, an exciting job

Quality manager, an exciting job

Laureano Alonso, who has been in charge of Compagnie Fruitière Spain’s 4 ripening facilities for more than 15 years, enthusiastically describes what goes on behind the scenes in his job.

The biggest concern in ripening facilities is the temperature.  We monitor it constantly, because the slightest deviation can have serious consequences on an entire shipment”, says the Madrid native who grew up surrounded by fruits and vegetables. Currently quality manager for the ripening facilities in Spain and Portugal, he supervises the unloading, ripening and distribution of the 115 tonnes of bananas destined for the Iberian peninsula annually. These steps require a rigorous and intuitive management capacity and a unique know-how, acquired from producers.

Carried out in a controlled atmosphere, the ripening phase is as crucial as cultivation or transport because, explains Laureano, “it is at this time that the fruit acquires its sweet taste and its golden appearance, two of its main qualities”.  The fact is that the bananas arriving in Europe are still green and asleep. Like most starchy fruits, bananas naturally interrupt their ripening process by reducing their respiration. This sleep is prolonged by a temperature of 13° during the journey in refrigerated holds. However, the fruits still have to undergo various quality controls before being awakened.

At the port, one team first verifies the packages’ traceability and checks the bananas’ internal temperature. A second team unloads the bunches and stores them on other pallets. Another team inspects the appearance of the fruits, their colour, size, weight, pesticide content and checks for the presence of visible defects. This thorough inspection enables the determination of whether the bananas comply with the various standards imposed by the European Union and the requirements of customers. According to Laureano: “on average, less than 1% of the cargo remains in port, as the bananas have already been inspected before shipping.

The fruits then go to the ripening room, where a temperature of 17° to 18° will take them out of their torpor, triggering their transformation. “In a few days, thanks to the heat and ethylene gas they produce naturally and which we ventilate, the starch is converted into sugar, the skin turns light yellow and the flesh softens. Watching this process is still thrilling even after all these years” says Laureano. Finally ready and tasty, the bananas are re-packaged and labelled for delivery to customers in the order of their arrival.

In 30 years of experience, Laureano has witnessed many developments in the sector, including one in particular: “A very scientific approach used to be applied to banana production in the past. Today, far fewer pesticides are used and the human factor is even more central to production. The fact is that we work with a natural, living, changing product. And we know that an engaged, responsible workforce is as important as a workforce with technical knowledge.”

The best part of his job? Without hesitation, his years as a dock worker: “I loved working in the ports. These are extraordinary places, where you can mix with people from all over the world every day. It’s rare and I was very lucky”.  When he trains new recruits, Laureano is enthusiastic about the means of communication now available, while remaining convinced that the qualities required for his job combine rigour, a sense of responsibility and a deep longing for nature and people.