Senegalese bananas must first conquer the local market

If you’ve ever left a banana in your bag, you’ll know about it. Bananas are delicious, but fragile. And we’ve noticed this too. Working with Vredeseilanden, Colruyt Group set up a chain project to buy Senegalese bananas and export them to Belgium. But after testing, it appears that their quality after their long journey is just not good enough for our supermarkets. So, along with all our partners, we decided to devote all our efforts to the local market in Senegal over the next few years. So that the farmers can increase their sales there.

This change of tack doesn’t mean that there will never be Senegalese bananas in our range. But until there are, we’ll keep helping farmers to improve their technical knowledge and infrastructure, and to work sustainably.

“It’s the ambition to export to Belgium that is putting things in motion,” says Leo Ghysels of Vredeseilanden. “We’re working with APROVAG, a Senegalese banana famers’ cooperative. The project focuses on 149 producers from the village of Nguène in a single cooperative within APROVAG. Thanks to training and assistance, the farmers have succeeded in getting their organic farming and Fairtrade certificates. The investments in irrigation and cableways that this triggered are now being spread further to all the farmers’ groups.”

What exactly was the problem with exporting bananas to Belgium?

Leo: “The project has been going for the past few years, but every step takes more time and effort than first thought. In our enthusiasm, we sometimes forget that delivering quality and quantity of a difficult product like bananas isn’t easy, certainly not for inexperienced farmers’ organisations.

In the last couple of years, we’ve exported two test containers. The first went relatively well. In the second container, the bananas weren’t of sufficient quality to be sold at Colruyt. The partners shared that loss, but it showed that exporting at this stage is very risky. The extra price that exporting offers the farmers doesn’t currently outweigh the risks for them.”

Banana transport container
Bananas are very vulnerable during the long container journey from Senegal to Belgium.

Hence the current focus on the local market?

Leo: “Yes. The local market is less risky and is developing quickly. In the past, APROVAG mainly supplied bananas in bulk (not selected, washed and packaged) to buyers who took the bunches to Senegal’s largest cities. But in the meantime, contacts were made with importers and wholesalers in Dakar. There, the growing middle classes pay prices which are not much cheaper than Europe, 900 CFAF per kilo, about €1.50. The proviso is that these bananas are delivered in boxes. Quality in Dakar is just as important as in Belgium. The farmers must compete with bananas from the Ivory Coast, which come from large plantations and are, in principle, intended for the European market. Investing in the cold chain (refrigeration, refrigerated transport) is therefore the most important condition.”

Checking bananas in Senegal
Quality in the local market is just as important as in Europe.

Has the Senegalese government also shifted up a gear?

Leo: “There is indeed a second reason why we’re hopeful about the local market: the launch of a national banana cultivation plan. That’s a game changer. The government has approved an investment plan to increase production so that Senegal will no longer have to import bananas. This involves building infrastructure to control the flow of the Gambia river more effectively or providing cheap credit for investment in high performance irrigation systems, for example.

Together with APROVAG, our Senegalese colleagues have to take credit for this. For years, they’ve put and kept this on the political agenda through the National Banana Growers Union (UNAFIBS).”

Does this change of direction mean that exports are completely out of the question?

Leo: “Look, if market conditions change, we’ll adapt. We’ve done it now and we’ll do it again if circumstances change.

Suppose that in the next few years, banana production booms under the government’s national plan, then the local market may become saturated and exports will be very interesting again. In addition, the farmers will be another step further on, making it technically easier for them. Our partner, Agrofair, a Dutch importer, is also still interested in broadening its supply of bananas to Europe.

But there’s not much point in speculating about the future. As an organisation, APROVAG must be ready to respond to any changes that arise. They must already ensure that they don't lose their advantage, because the government’s plan will attract other players.”

What are your plans for the coming months?

Leo: “The challenge for the coming months is to experiment further with supplying wholesalers in Dakar. And above all, working out how this process can be the most profitable. The different transport options to Dakar are an important factor. Tambacounda is on the busy road to Mali and there are lots of empty trucks coming back from there. But also the option of our own truck with a refrigerated container also needs to be examined. That assumes you can ensure a regular supply of bananas and that you have a return cargo from Dakar so that you don't run empty. Testing, calculating and, above all, learning, that’s the message."

Banana cableway
Things are moving: investment in irrigation and cableways within our project continues to flow out to all farmers’ groups.

"Another tricky point is fertiliser. The production of organic fertiliser is important for organic certification. So a small compost company has been set up in Sankagne, which also creates employment for local young people. Increasing mechanisation must allow the systematic growth of production. But the irrigation and composting yield are static. In the town of Nguène, where farmers have had intensive assistance over the past few years, the yield has more than doubled."

"In terms of management, there are also great challenges. A farmers’ union has no commercial thinking and so APROVAG set up a business arm, APROCOB. But getting that structure operational is another process that takes time and training. All members must feel involved, and feel the added value of their membership and share in the business.

Our Senegalese team is committed to supporting APROVAG over the next three years. With a five-year option if we achieve predetermined results.”

Irrigation Senegal
All members must feel involved, and feel the added value of their membership and share in the business.

So in the short term we won't be able to buy any Senegalese bananas in Colruyt supermarkets. How will the partnership between Vredeseilanden and Colruyt progress?

Leo: “Our partnership with Colruyt Group is far broader than just this project. We have had a partnership for several years with a common goal: seeing how we can make the supply chains behind products more structurally sustainable. By working on mechanisms which, for example, create transparency, enable long-term cooperation, spread risks and profits equally, etc. We examine exactly how we achieve this through actual projects. In this sense, we have been able to take a great deal from our partnership relating to Senegalese bananas. But we are also working together on a number of other projects, such as coffee from the DR Congo or quinoa from Peru.

It’s certainly difficult work, but ‘difficult’ is our business. Both we and Colruyt Group have great dedication and ambition to forge the way ahead.”

Identikit

Name: Leo Ghysels
Function: Programme adviser on modern markets

Job? • I help farmers’ groups to access modern market systems. This can be for local (national) as well as for export markets.
Energy? • I get great motivation if an association (or cooperative) succeeds in setting up a modern no-nonsense business, which has its members’ prosperity at heart.
Nicest project? • Marketing APROVAG bananas in Senegal is a fun project. As is Vinos Lautaro, a wine cooperative I’ve been working with for 20 years in Chile.

Senegal: girls at school

In the same region where this chain project is running, Collibri Foundation is working with APRODEN, a local children’s rights association, to establish a training project. This aims to keep Senegalese girls in Tambacounda at school for longer.

Read more

With this initiative, we contribute to the following Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

Decent work & economic growth Industry, innovation & infrastructure Reduce inequality Life on land Peace, injustice and strong institutions Partnerships for the goals