Banana Entrepreneurs Should Follow the Cocoa Initiative

Last Wednesday, The New York Times ran an appealing story on the rise of an Ecuadorian Quichua community from a cocoa grower to a chocolate producer.  The 850-families cooperative, located in the Amazonian rainforest, sells rich chocolate bars to American supermarkets without intermediaries.

This initiative is worth emulating, and should be followed by Ecuadorian agribusiness men who export fruits with no added value, such as bananas, mangoes, passion fruits, and coffee beans.  Read NYT’s When Chocolate is a Way of Life

Wearing a faded red t-shirt and worn out sneakers, a banana farmer was happy to chat with me about the “green gold,” as the fruit is called, back in my days as an agribusiness reporter in Ecuador. Without an appointment, I was able to jump from the road into the plantation to have my first hands-on experience in the banana business.  Like the farmer I met, over two million Ecuadorians depend on banana production either directly or indirectly.  Bananas are the main agricultural export of Ecuador, with a monthly volume of 20 million boxes, according to the Banana Exporters Association (AEBE).

Despite Ecuador’s leading position in the global banana market, sales of the fruit represented only 8.1 percent of the nation’s exports between January and August 2008. That’s because Ecuador is an oil-producing country, and margins on basic products such as agricultural products are low.  A solution, then, is to graduate up the producer ladder into products that have added value such as processed agricultural goods.

If my country, like many other developing nations, could learn from the Quichua cocoa experience, maybe next time I visit my hometown I won’t provoke giggles from the skillful artisans who offer hand-woven bags and placemats made of dry banana leaves on Ecuador’s streets when I suggest they market their products overseas. After the Quichua success, my encouragement to sell such handcrafts internationally should inspire excitement rather than laughs or sighs.

Entrepreneurs are the ones that should take advantage of these opportunities, export these unique products to America or Europe, and change the lives of the world’s poorest.