It’s a Banana Republic

Mango mania may be passé overseas. Fresh bananas have been the second most exported fruit from India for the past two financial years, breaching the ₹1,000-crore mark for the first time last fiscal, with shipments worth nearly two and a half times those of mangoes.

While grapes continued to be the sweetest fruit for Indian traders, with shipments worth more than ₹2,400 crore in 2020-21, according to the customs department entries, banana exports surged about 41% from ₹710 crore in the previous fiscal. In contrast, mango exports fell marginally to about ₹400 crore, from ₹408 crore a year ago.

Moreover, banana exports have grown about threefold from ₹355 crore in 2017-18, while mango exports have hovered around the ₹400-crore mark during this period.

Traders attributed the surge in banana exports to demand from West Asian and North African countries. “The Philippines, which had a significant banana market share in Gulf countries, started to export more to China. This created a vacuum in the Gulf, which was filled by Indian fruit exporters. We dominate those markets now,” said Pankaj Khandelwal, chairman, INI Farms.

India is the largest producer of bananas, with an annual output of about 30 million metric tonnes, accounting for about 28% of global production. Nearly 90% of the produce is consumed locally.

According to industry executives, larger acreage, better fruit handling infrastructure, less crop risk and stable profits in the hands of farmers, along with the emergence of corporate players, have helped step up exports. INI, Mahindra Agri Solutions and Desai AgriFoods are among the largest institutional buyers of bananas, and bulk of their purchases are exported.

“You need good pack houses and storage to keep bananas fresh,” said Khandelwal. “The procurement schedule has to be planned well before the harvest. Once the crop is harvested, it has to be sorted and shipped out in quick time.”

Besides India and the Philippines, Uganda, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Tanzania, Angola and Mexico are large growers of bananas. Most producing countries look at closer markets as bananas are perishable and extremely difficult to be transported fresh to distant markets. Nearly 500 MT of bananas produced in India go waste because they don’t reach buyers in fresh condition.

Domestic consumption of bananas has also gone up, according to farmers. This has kept the price in the hands of farmers steady at ₹12-15 per kg. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka lead banana cultivation. “Compared to other fruits, bananas are cheaper and have more nutritional value. There are over 100 varieties of bananas grown across India – and it is a profitable crop,” said R Kottaichamy, a prominent banana farmer in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district.

Several farmers in Theni district, which has significant banana cultivation, have switched to nendran, red bananas, elakkai and karpuravalli varieties from Cavendish groups, to meet the domestic demand. Cavendish bananas, elaichi kela and nendran are the preferred varieties in the export market. “We moved out of Cavendish bananas a few years ago after a string of rot and virus attack,” said Kottaichaimy, who grows nearly 20,000 bananas on his15-acre farm.

Harvesting of bananas is done 12-14 months after planting the dwarfs (saplings). Large cultivators also adopt the ‘tissue culture method’, which entails cloning of a selected crop. This method of cultivation is more suitable for exports as it yields an identical crop – in terms of looks, colour and size. Tissue culturing also ensures higher yield in a short period. “Yield management was a problem before, but not anymore… These days we grow the crop using the tissue culture method. We seek the help of agriculture scientists to perfect the crop,” said Rahul Patil, who has a 35-acre farm in Chaalisgaon, Maharashtra.

Patil and other farmers of Jalgaon district have tied up with private companies to export their produce. They also sell raw bananas to chips and farsan companies, and to baby food manufacturers for banana powder. “We get about a couple of rupees more if we sell to private companies. We just have to grow good quality fruits, box them and dispatch as per their procurement schedule,” said Patil.

There are not many processing and canning companies in this segment as it is difficult to keep the fresh banana supply chain running. Several startups tried to launch beverages and smoothies, but without much success.

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