The shipment of bananas has been mainly to European market and countries in West Asia
Chandran CV and Mukesh MM, banana farmers from Mattathur in Thrissur, have much to cheer about this Onam. Nendran bananas from their farms — nearly five metric tonnes — have travelled all the way by sea to reach Kuwait to be sold in retail markets there. Jose KA, another banana farmer from Mattathur, has exported 300 banana leaves from his farm to London by air. The shipment also had vegetables and banana varieties such as nendran, Robusta and kappa pazham (red banana) collected from other farmers.
It was in March and April this year that Kerala exported nendran bananas (branded ‘Thalir’) by sea for the first time. Since then there has been a rise in the demand for bananas and vegetables from Kerala in the international market. The ship, which set sail on March 8 from Kochi with six metric tonnes of bananas from the farm of Joby AJ of Puthukkad in Thrissur, reached London port well in time for the festival of Vishu, after over a month’s travel.
The project was the fruition of nearly 10 months of concerted effort by a team of experts and officials at the State Government’s Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council (VFPCK) and National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB), Trichy.
Although private players have been exporting farm produce to international markets, it was the first time that a government enterprise entered the fray. “Air freight is expensive (transportation by sea costs 1/7th of the rate incurred by air),” says V Sivaramakrishnan, CEO, VFPCK. “There is a limit on the quantity that can be taken by air. There were no complaints about the consignment sent to London and since then the State has been getting regular orders, especially from West Asia.”
Over 42 metric tonnes of produce, including 500 kilogram of vegetables, have been exported this year. Of this, 31 metric tonnes bananas have been shipped to Kuwait alone and 500 kilogram was sent by flight to Singapore. The products were sourced from farmers in Thrissur, Kozhikode, Ernakulam, Kollam and Palakkad districts.
Adhering to the protocol
However, long-distance sea shipment is no cake walk. There are Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) related to pre- and post-harvest laid down by the NRCB, which covers cultivation, disease control, handling the harvest, cleaning and packing.
The bananas are harvested when they reach 80-85% maturity and have to be handled with utmost care. The ‘hands’ (padala or the banana bunch) have to look similar. While de-handling them from the peduncle (the stalk), the top and bottom ‘hands’ are discarded. Cleaning involves multiple steps — they are cleaned with water, kept in alum water, washed in soap solution, dipped in cold water and then treated with a solution to prevent any fungal attacks. The dried ‘hands’ are then packed in polythene-sheet-layered cartons. Ethylene absorber packets are kept in the cartons to prevent early ripening. The vacuum-packed containers are pre-cooled before they are taken to the ship. Air freight does not involve these many steps. The bananas were cleaned and packed at the packhouse of Vazhakulam Agro and Fruit Processing Company Ltd at Nadukkara near Muvattupuzha.
When the project was launched in Thrissur in June 2020, 22 farmers were selected for it. There were regular field visits and inspections by experts. Once they zeroed in on Joby’s farm, the officials closely monitored every step of the growth of the bananas, says Jahangir Kassim, district manager, VFPCK, Thrissur.
While it took over a month for the ship to reach London, the travel to West Asian countries requires around three weeks. The second consignment to London had to be sent by flight because they needed the produce immediately. Besides banana leaves and different varieties of banana, there was ash gourd, yellow cucumber, snake gourd, ivy gourd, banana stem, banana flower and pumpkin in the air cargo.
Not all farmers are keen to cultivate bananas for export because early harvesting of the fruit reduces the weight thereby reducing their income. The removal of top and bottom ‘hands’ further brings down the weight. “However, we are compensating for the loss. Nevertheless cultivating these bananas for export is not easy, especially in a hilly terrain like Kakkadampoyil of Koodaranhi panchayat in our district,” says Rani George, district manager, VFPCK, Kozhikode. Three consignments of nendran bananas, which came to over 19 metric tonnes, were exported from the region to Kuwait (in April and June). The produce was collected from 12 farmers, adds Sanjay T, deputy manager, VFPCK.
Nevertheless, in spite of the risk factors, more farmers are evincing interest, says Noble Mathew Thadathil, president of the farmers’ society at Kakkadampoyil. The farmers are now aware of the pros and cons of the cultivation. “In the domestic market we are always taken for a ride by the middle men. It is encouraging to learn that our produce has demand in international market. Many of us are now willing to grow export-quality bananas,” he adds.
More exporters are also coming forward and some even want to learn the technology. “We tell them that the protocol is different for each variety of banana and vegetables,” says Babitha KU, export officer, VFPCK, Thrissur. “The time of harvest depends on where the bananas are being exported to. And there cannot be any compromise on appearance and quality. There should be not even a minute scratch on a banana.”
Meanwhile VFPCK is promoting export-oriented cultivation of bananas across the State so that from next year onwards farmers from other districts also can ship their produce.