Persistence pays off, that’s what we believe.

Persistence pays off, that’s what we believe.

Leo Ghysels
Leo Ghysels
Program Advisor sustainable chain development

An interview with Leo Ghysels. About bananas in Senegal.

Leo is Program Advisor sustainable chain development at Vredeseilanden/VECO in Leuven.

Leo, can you tell us briefly about banana production and the market in Senegal? How many farmers are we talking about here and what about the consumption side?

There are about 9,000 banana producers in Senegal. The principal banana-growing area is the Tambacounda region, where Vredeseilanden/VECO is currently working. Total annual production in Senegal is about 30,000 tonnes. On the market side, demand is 45,000 to 50,000 tonnes per year, which means that some imports (15,500 tonnes in 2014) are needed to make up the shortfall. Imported bananas mainly come from the Ivory Coast. Lately the Senegalese authorities have stepped up their efforts to boost banana production in Senegal. I recently attended a conference that was organised by Vredeseilanden/VECO and the National Federation of Banana growers UNAFIBS(Union Nationale des Acteurs de la Filière Banane de Sénégal). The focus was on the banana production chain and the possibilities of support by the government. The Senegalese authorities are focusing on production for the local market (50,000 tonnes) and export (9000 tonnes). They’ve already been doing this for some other types of agricultural produce, such as onions. But lately there have been efforts on the export side as well, for example for beans, mangoes and sweet potatoes.

So, for the moment, banana production in Senegal is mainly targeting the internal market?

As far as I know, no bananas have been exported from Senegal in the past. At least, not until we started doing it. Last year we did some export trials in cooperation with Colruyt Group and Agrofair, a retailer and an importer, respectively. The aim of this collaboration was to get organic fairtrade bananas from Senegal into the shops of the Colruyt Group. When the first test container we shipped fared reasonably well (end 2014), we were hopeful for the future. The second shipment in November 2015 however, was more or less a disaster. The bananas didn’t meet the necessary quality standards and couldn’t be sold for distribution in the supermarkets. This was a huge disappointment for everyone concerned. The main reason for this failure was soon discovered. The problems come from within the production process itself. A banana plant needs a steady supply of water, otherwise the bananas ripen too fast and you get bananas that are still green on the outside but already ripe on the inside, which makes them useless for export. In fact, this demonstrates the principal challenge facing Aprovag, the farmers’ organisation we work with. They need to organise the whole chain in a more industrial manner. This means that each link in the value chain, from seedlings to packaging and transport, needs to be methodically organised. That way of working demands discipline.

Is this the role of Vredeseilanden/VECO? To assist organisations in developing these skills?

That’s right. But I think the Aprovag people are already aware of this – they’ve already experienced a learning curve with Vredeseilanden/VECO. The challenge now is to implement this knowledge in an effective way, at individual producer level. You see, one plantation often consists of 150 or more individual farmers, with each farmer working on a plot of land in his (or her) own familiar way. The upshot of this is that there’s a big difference in quality and yield of their produce. And that’s where changes are needed. In actual fact, the land they work on is not owned by the individual farmers themselves, but by the farmer group (Economic Interest Group). If a farmer is neglecting his work, the land he’s working on can be taken away from him and assigned to another farmer. Which in reality seldom happens. There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of how production is organised. Working in a more centralised way is an important prerequisite for making this happen.

Can you give a specific example of how this is done?

On the Sankagne plantation, for example, they’ve started installing a new irrigation system that works with sprinklers. This is quite revolutionary for Aprovag. It can easily save a farmer five hours of manual labour every day, as the plants are currently watered by hand, using garden hoses. The sprinkler system provides the plants with a regular water supply and less water is wasted. Since all of the plantations are situated along the Gambia River, there’s a constant supply of water. The sprinkler system in Sankagne will be completed in February 2016, and the plantation in Nguène will be next in line. The funds to pay for the system are already in place. This is quite an investment for the farmers’ organisations, but it’s an investment with a guaranteed return.

So our priority for 2016 is to optimise the irrigation systems. Experience has taught us that the necessary standards won’t be achieved with the present way of working.

As you say, this requires a substantial investment. Will farmers benefit from this?

Absolutely! In Senegal, and more specifically in Dakar, there’s a demand for quality bananas. The prices paid by consumers in the capital are just a little bit lower than what we pay here in Belgium. Quality bananas go for FCFA 900 per kg in Dakar, which is about 1.4 to 1.5 euros. In fact, farmers will win twice. With better-quality bananas, they will be able to access ‘high-quality markets’ such as Casino and CityDia supermarkets. Aprovag used to get market prices of around 260 FCFA per kg packed bananas; now they’ve already managed to obtain 350 FCFA. But if they succeed in improving their quality to European standards, pricing from FCFA 400 to FCFA 415 is within reach.

And there’s more. Improving irrigation and using better fertilisers will also increase yield. Fertilising also means investing more, but once again, this will be more than compensated by the bigger profit. There’s still huge potential for production growth. If a plantation is well managed, a yield of 30 to 40 tonnes per hectare (per year) is possible. At the moment, they often don’t even achieve half of that, sometimes producing only 10 to 11 tonnes per hectare. Imagine growing two to three times more…

Why opt for organic production?

That choice was mainly made for exportation purposes. The European market is supplied with bananas from all around the globe, so gaining access for Senegalese produce is hard. By opting for the organic segment, successful entry to this market becomes more likely. For the Dakar market, organic labelling can serve as a kind of quality label. So even if organic is not yet a big issue in Dakar, it can be used as a marketing tool. Moreover, the conditions in Senegal are ideal for organic production. The low atmospheric humidity means that there are almost no problems with pests or fungi, so there’s no need to use pesticides or fungicides.

As part of this project, Vredeseilanden/VECO is working with Colruyt Group and Agrofair , a retailer and an importer. Does this collaboration have added value for the farmers, the producers?

Most certainly. When starting up these kinds of projects, there’s often a lot of scepticism from the farmers. In this particular case, you’d hear comments like: ‘Exporting bananas to Europe… that remains to be seen’. But when I visited the plantations with specialists from Colruyt Group and Agrofair I noticed that just their presence made a huge impression on the farmers. The mere fact that representatives of important companies bother to come and visit the plantations really helps boost the farmers’ self-belief and motivation. And of course there’s pricing. The price paid for exported produce is even higher than the best prices paid on the Dakar market. And exporting also creates extra jobs in packaging and preparing for transportation. Packaging alone provides employment and extra income for quite a few youngsters.

With our programmes, Vredeseilanden/VECO is aiming to create examples and share experiences. In your view, what are the lessons learned from this programme at this stage?

What you see in this case is the need to work on the different aspects of the value chain from start to finish. Working with farmers and their organisations is fine, but in order to get the bananas where you want them a lot more is required. You need providers of quality seedlings, you need producers of pallets and boxes, you need suitable transportation with adapted cooling systems, etc. As I mentioned earlier, the whole value chain needs to be organised in an efficient and smooth manner. Each action, each operation needs to become routine, something that can be repeated, week in week out, with consistency in both quality and quantity. This case provides lessons on every single link in the value chain. In this particular instance, we can also capitalise on the efforts of the Senegalese authorities to enhance banana production. But, and maybe this is the most important lesson learned, building a value chain like this is a work of many years. It’s an ongoing process. That’s something we tend to forget sometimes.

You speak of ‘a work of many years’. Are we, as NGOs, as donors, too impatient? Do we expect to see results too soon?

The external communications of NGOs like Vredeseilanden/VECO often have a campaigning or fundraising focus, which means that we like to convey positive stories with – preferably quick – results. But the projects we’re working on are, in many cases, what I would call ‘tricky projects’, where we and our partners often work in difficult circumstances and where it takes time to make progress. I tend to put this very simply. If the job had been easy, there would have been no need for us to intervene. This kind of work takes time, a lot of time, and we often have too little patience, I’m afraid. In this particular case, the context makes it even more difficult. The farming families we’re working with came to the Tambacounda region as part of a resettlement programme after a severe drought. They’re used to practising subsistence agriculture, so they also grow other crops besides bananas. In fact, they’re highly adept at spreading risks. They divide their efforts, so that if one crop fails, they still have a plan B. In severe circumstances, this strategy is right and even self-evident, but in fact it’s quite incompatible with the strategy required for banana production for the market, where maximising production in terms of both quality and quantity is what’s needed. This means important changes in farmers’ working practices and mindset. On the other hand we don't want farmers to become completely dependent from export. Finding this balance is a complex but very interesting element of this programme, from which a lot can be learned.

What are realistic expectations for the future? What are the plans for the coming year?

As already mentioned, we will be focusing on irrigation. By August of this year the irrigation systems in Sankagne and Nguène should be fully operational. In Saal, we also need to invest in new pumps, because the current system is obsolete. Technicians will be trained to carry out maintenance and repairs. In March of this year we will again visit the plantations with specialists from Colruyt Group and Agrofair to take stock of the situation, plan actions for the coming months and make adjustments if necessary. Via Agrofair, a significant investment in good equipment and training is also planned. Having equipment of good quality and qualified people to work with it is very important. Part of this investment will be a mobile composting unit for composting organic matter, which will then be used as fertiliser. Both fertilisation and irrigation are important because banana plants are quite demanding in terms of their impact on the soil. We’re also introducing systems for better harvesting. By attaching coloured ribbons to the plants, periodic and correct harvesting, week after week, becomes a lot easier. Simple systems can sometimes have a huge impact, if applied correctly.

Another aspect that should be looked into is what company structure is best suited to banana production. The farmers’ organisation currently consists of individual, independent farmers. Maybe paid employment should be considered in the future, which is something that needs to be investigated.

Is it still the goal to have Senegalese organic bananas on the shelves of the Colruyt Group?

Absolutely, that’s what we want. You cannot underestimate the effect this will have on the farmers’ motivation. For example, last year, within a period of three months, the farmers met the standards for three different certification schemes: Organic, Fairtrade and Global Gap. Initially nobody believed they would succeed, but they did. Without the prospect of exporting, this wouldn’t have been the case. Besides, it’s also a matter of pride for the farmers. The failure with the second exported container was a blow for them, and especially for the people at Aprovag. They want to set this right. That’s the positive side – we’ve all learned from the experience. At the time, the bananas should never have passed quality control in Senegal. But we were all so eager to make it work that we thought it couldn’t go wrong. That negative experience has acted as a wake-up call for all concerned, and that’s a good sign for the future. Our goal is the Dakar market and the shops of the Colruyt Group. It might be this year but, if not, then certainly next year.

Thank you, Leo. We’ll try to be more patient in the future.

Jo Vermeersch