Akila Wijerathna unpeels the economic benefits of commercialising a fruit!

The banana is a staple food and an essential cash crop for smallholder farmers. It’s consumed as both table and culinary fruit. Banana leaves are used to serve meals and their chopped stems as cattle feed.

Some species yield fibre, which is used to make rope. The inflorescent tip can be cooked as a vegetable and soft ripe banana is fed to babies as solid food. The unripe fruit and inner core of the pseudo-stem are regularly cooked as curry in areas where banana is cultivated. Moreover, it is used as decorations in weddings, festivals and fairs.

Four banana varieties – cooking, brewing, dessert and roasting – are cultivated and their occurrence varies by location depending on farmers’ preferences, demand and climatic conditions. Generally, the cooking type is dominant; it is followed by dessert, brewing and roasting varieties.

The choice of banana cultivated is largely based on traditional customs and less on market demand, which means that farmers fail to sell their harvest particularly during peak seasons. On the other hand, this helps reduce the genetic erosion of diversity.

In a subsistence economy, agricultural marketing may be of little significance since farmers produce food for their households, leaving little or nothing for the market. But as agriculture shifts to commercial production, this becomes very important.

Sri Lanka’s banana sector remains relatively static compared to other crops. The bulk of production is carried out by smallholders who face challenges such as declining soil fertility, pests and diseases, pre and post-harvest losses, and poor market linkages.

Only a minority of banana farmers are organised for effective production or marketing and to ensure that their voices are heard. When they succeed in selling fruit to distant markets, the majority lack adequate information on prices, in addition to which they sell through an inefficient chain of intermediaries and receive only a fraction of the price paid.

Most bananas produced in Sri Lanka are sold as perishable fruits so there’s inevitably a loss of quality and value along the way.

Agriculture is a major contributor to the local economy and therefore, offers a route to equitable development. Research indicates that economic growth generated by agriculture is far more effective than in other sectors, in terms of benefitting poorer segments of the population.

Paradoxically, the underdevelopment of the banana sector means that it has huge potential as a driver of development. With a large production base already in place to meet local needs, the groundwork has been laid to respond to increasing demand from expanding markets in the region and internationally.

Relatively modest investments in marketing, processing and production could greatly expand income opportunities for banana farmers. Products made from bananas and value added items include beer, wine, juices, sauces, mats, handbags, envelopes, postcards, flour, soup and breakfast cereals that are available in the market.

The banana plant is increasingly targeted for commercialisation not only in the West but also in profitable and emerging markets – like the Middle East and northern Europe, for example.

In developing a strategy to garner economic growth, the banana’s vital role in food security for the rural poor mustn’t be overlooked.

Any Sri Lankan strategy must address both food security and income generation but these objectives are potentially in conflict. Food security depends on increasing production while keeping prices low whereas improving income often focusses on higher value products.

Improving linkages across the value chain is an urgent need if the sector is to be transformed. Better linkage – which depends on more access to information, and communication between growers, traders, agribusinesses, processors, retailers and consumers – is important in the context of achieving many identified priorities.

In markets and trade for example, matching supply and demand largely depends on information flowing through effective linkages. And the banana sector could be successfully transformed only if infrastructure is improved and the producers’ position is strengthened.

Farmers are greatly empowered by working together in cooperatives or associations, as they’re in a better position to address production constraints and respond to markets. Information sharing and training are facilitated, and effective innovation systems can be developed more easily, as the economies of scale increase from individuals to organisations.

Supporting actors such as NGOs and community based organisations have a crucial role in promoting the development of farmer groups. It’s also in the interest of agribusinesses to support their creation and operation.

After all, it is more efficient and thus financially viable to work with groups – such as in the supply of inputs and purchase of greater volumes.