Colruyt Group and Rikolto support Senegalese banana famers
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 Rikolto, the former Vredeseilanden, Colruyt Group started a project in 2012 to buy Senegalese bananas and export them to Belgium. But the long-distance transport of the fragile bananas posed many challenges. That is why all partners decided to temporarily halt the export project and first focus on the Senegalese market. We are investing in training and infrastructure, among other things. And the sales experience the farmers gain on the local market is also very valuable.
“The original export ambition has set many things in motion”, says Leo Ghysels who helped set up the project at Rikolto. “Rikolto still works with APROVAG, a cooperative of 635 Senegalese banana famers in the district of Tambacounda. Thanks to training and assistance, the farmers have succeeded in getting their organic farming and Fairtrade certificates. In addition, the investments in irrigation, composting machines and cableways which was triggered as a result 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 forgot that delivering quality and quantity of a difficult product like bananas isn’t easy, certainly not for inexperienced farmers’ organisations.”
Philippe Toussaint, project manager at Colruyt Group: "Colruyt and Rikolto employees went to Senegal several times. Together with the cooperative APROVAG, we worked on a step-by-step plan to make the long journey as seamless as possible. We exported two containers as a test. Everything went relatively well with the first container. However, in the second container the ripening of the bananas had already started. As a result, they were of insufficient quality to be offered in our Colruyt shops.
The partners shared that loss, but it showed that exporting at this stage is very risky. The project taught us that the extra price that exporting can offer the farmers doesn’t currently outweigh the risks for them. In addition, we also noticed that it is not easy to bring all the farmers of the cooperative on one line in terms of ambitions and objectives. Despite the efforts made to achieve a successful chain, the time was not yet ripe for export.”
Hence the current focus on the local market?
Leo: “Indeed. All partners together decided to temporarily halt the export project. Senegalese farmers are now going full time for sales on the local market, which is less risky and is developing quickly. In the past, APROVAG mainly supplied bananas in bulk (not selected, washed or packaged) to buyers who took the bunches to Senegal’s largest cities. But in the meantime, the farmers are taking control of the sales on the local markets. They made contact with importers and wholesalers in Senegalese cities such as Dakar. This will allow them to improve their market understanding and bargaining position."
In Dakar the growing middle classes pay prices which are not much cheaper than Europe. 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.”
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 and improve logistics so that Senegal will no longer have to import bananas. This involves building infrastructure to control the flow of the Gambia river more effectively, improving the roads between Tambacounda and Dakar and 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).”
What is the current situation?
Mambaye Sy (Rikolto Senegal): "We are still working with APROVAG. In recent years, we have focused on improving the quality of Senegalese bananas so that farmers can compete with imports from the Ivory Coast. At this moment we are helping APROVAG with the organisation of a storage area. Such a space is a real asset because it simplifies the logistical organisation, such as transport to the local towns. Especially during the peak season – when a large number of bananas are ready for consumption at the same time each week – it is important to maintain the quality and to be able to spread the sales.”
Leo: “In Sankagne – one of Senegalese villages – a composting business was also set up. Indeed, the production of organic manure is very important in order to obtain a bio certificate. Not only does it make agriculture more sustainable, but it also increases banana production. The setting up of the company also created additional jobs. Increasing mechanisation now makes it possible to increase the production of compost even further. In addition to fertilisation, good irrigation also pays off. In the village of Nguène, for example, where farmers have received intensive guidance in recent years, the yield has more than doubled. We can be very proud of these results!”
Name: Leo Ghysels
Function: Leo is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement. He has worked for many years on setting up sustainable food chains, for example for bananas from Senegal and quinoa from Peru.
Job? • I helped farmers’ groups to access modern market systems. I did this for local (national) as well as for export markets.
Energy? • An association (or cooperative) which would succeed in setting up a modern no-nonsense business and keeping its members’ prosperity at heart, that’s what motivated me enormously.
Nicest project? • Marketing APROVAG bananas in Senegal! And my many years of collaboration with Vinos Lautaro, a wine cooperative in Chile.
With this initiative, we contribute to the following Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.