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When bananas fell-Part 1

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by Oscar Allen

Banana is a slippery product and it falls easily, but it can rise quickly too. Look at three examples of up and down production. In 1975 production fell from 21,791 tonnes in 1974 to 18,630 tonnes and the next year it bounced back to 29,949 tonnes.

The same thing happened in 1980 and 1994. Bad weather and La Soufriere caused the fall in output and strong spirited growers and their organized social capital produced the bounce back.{{more}}

But bananas had a serious fall just over 10 years ago and when she was getting up, another set of kicks put her down. Right now bananas are making it only through the rescue efforts of “Fairtrade”, a subsidy, and the maneuvers of WIBDECO, but if we could see when and where and how bananas fell, well, we would have a lot to think about.

Since the beginnings in 1954, St. Vincent and the Grenadines never exported anything like 50,000 tonnes of bananas until 1988, when in one year we jumped from 35,307 tonnes to 61,868 tonnes! The next year we went higher, to output 65,685 tonnes, and then higher still in 1990. This is what WINBAN – the Windwards Banana Association reported at the time in 1990.

Significant increases in production were achieved in St. Vincent where production reached a record high of 79,876 tonnes, some 23.6% above the record set in 1989 …record production levels were set in every given quarter in 1990.

How did this banana boom happen? WINBAN stated: “Acreage as well as number of growers have been increasing steadily since 1988”. Perhaps the 1989 report of the St. Vincent Banana Growers Association makes the important point that: “In 1988 growers received the highest price in the history of the industry, 20 cents per pound basic from January to March and October to December, and 25 cents per pound basic from April to September”. (Actually, the 1988 and 1989 prices were not very different, but they were satisfying to growers).

In the six years, between 1988 and 1993, SVG banana exports remains above 50,000 tonnes, then a drought reduced our export output in 1994 to 30,933 tonnes. We raised it to 50,013 in 1995, but that was it.

Since then, for 10 years, we have exported less than 50,000 tonnes, even dropping to below 20,000 tonnes in 2005.

True, in 1997 there was a dry five months at the start of the year, and in 1998, a torrential end-of-year rainy season from September, but these only compounded the setbacks of what had become an industry that was run by ubiquitous haul and toss, and lacking internal coherence.

When we examine what was going on all the time behind the back of banana growers, we get the feeling that our bananas were falling just around the same time when we were exporting high volumes of fruit.

In an early (1995) study on the decline of the SVG banana Industry (1993…1994), “ineffective management” is identified as “the major factor causing decline”.

The authors of the study, Minerva Latham and Otto Sam found that “…when external changes placed new challenges before the industry” the weakness in management/governance exposed itself.

The way ahead, according to the Latham and Sam study, is to make the SVGBGA “commercially oriented” led by personnel “endowed with executive authority and operating as an industrial team”. In 1995, when the two teachers did their research and report, the SVGBGA had at least eight contending “heads” –

(1) the General Manager,

(2) the Chairman of the Board,

(3) the Prime Minister,

(4) the Geest Company,

(5) the Supermarkets multiples,

(6) the British Ministers of Agriculture and Overseas Development,

(7) the Technical Assistance Programme and

(8) Director the Windwards Collaboration.

There was no single person or team with “executive authority”. The industry had so many bosses that it was in meltdown, fall down. Policy in the industry had no one source or place of origin. On one occasion, in 1992 the Geest Chief Executive Mr. Rapier asked the Windwards Prime Ministers to stop the Banana Associations from pushing for progressive change. He mentioned money. The Prime Ministers said, “Sure thing boss”.

It all came to a head in the long years of change in the marketplace in Europe. Some of the changes were:

(1) the commanding position of supermarkets and the competition between them, to have their brands as the best;

(2) the setting up of the one European market in place of the British market,

(3) the hostile way the bigger US-based banana companies went to war for the British/European market,

(4) the birth of WIBDECO and the taking over of the Geest banana business by the Windwards,

(5) the desire to have a Windwards brand of banana,

(6) the backward position of the British that they would give aid only if the Windwards did not venture into their own banana business operations in Britain; and so on.

In those years we had to deal with names and forces like, WTO European Commission, MAFF (UK), Cargill, WIAP, Stabex, 5 Isles, WIBEC, WINBAN Investment – WIBDECO, Pack Types, Dole, etc.

Bananas fell when our politically primitive way of managing, our commercially unsound approaches, and our styles of governance that keeps growers in the bush, as it were, had to face global business cannibals. We are still at that stage, and I will touch down on some of the features of our fall in the next article.

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