Banana industry in need of hit product

FRUITLESS::Low labor costs abroad have contributed to a more than fourfold drop in banana exports since 1967, while the sector looks for its version of the pineapple cake

By Catherine Shu  /  NY Times News Service, GREATER KAOHSIUNG

Tue, Sep 17, 2013 - Page 5

For the Taiwanese farmers who grow them, the problem with bananas is that they are not pineapples.

The nation’s banana exports have fallen sharply for decades, as have the prices farmers can get for the fruit they sell.

The solution seems simple: better marketing, as has been done with almonds, raisins and pomegranates in the US.

The Taiwan Banana Research Institute wants to make bananas a luxury product. It hopes that consumers will grow to consider Pei-Chiao bananas — the Giant Cavendish variety most often grown in the country — a delicacy for which they will pay a premium price.

“Our goal is to position Taiwanese bananas as a brand and appeal to consumers who are willing to pay extra for fruit because it tastes better and was grown using safer farming methods,” institute director Chao Chih-ping said.

However, the country’s efforts have so far fallen short.

The banana industry needs to discover a hit product that will increase demand and raise prices. Banana farmers are searching for their equivalent of the pineapple cake, the snack savior of the pineapple industry.

In 2006, the Taipei City Government began promoting the pastry as a Taiwanese souvenir, holding annual baking competitions and marketing it to tourists. That year, the pineapple cake industry raked in NT$2 billion (US$67.6 million) in revenue, according to the Taipei Bakery Association.

By last year, that figure had ballooned to NT$39 billion, driven by bakeries like SunnyHills, which ships the delicacies to buyers in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

“We hoped that banana cakes could become the next pineapple cake, but that hasn’t happened,” said Chuang Lao-da, a director at the Council of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Agency.

The nation’s surplus bananas have also been turned into chips, puddings and a domestically consumed liquor, but no hit product has been discovered yet.

Wu Pao-chun (吳寶春), a baker famous for winning international competitions like France’s Coupe Louis Lesaffre, created his own version of banana bread as a tribute to Taiwan’s farmers.

Unlike the hearty US version, which is made with mashed bananas, Wu’s recipe features slices of the fruit. However, although many of Wu’s baked goods are sold online, his banana bread cannot be shipped because the fruit will lose its texture and flavor. It is available only at his Greater Kaohsiung bakery, where about 30 small loaves are baked each day and sold for NT$80 each.

“People in Asian countries aren’t used to baked goods made with bananas. They have to become accustomed to the flavor, which we hope to do by gradually promoting our banana bread,” he said.

In addition to consumable products, Chao thinks that another way to revive the industry may lie in extracting tryptophan — an amino acid — from surplus bananas to use as an antidepressant. In addition, the peel could be a source of antioxidants, or the fiber from banana stems harvested to be turned into textiles.

Given these possibilities, the US’ corn industry may be a better model for Taiwanese banana farmers than the now iconic pineapple cakes.

Most of the US’ corn is turned into ethanol, animal feed or high-fructose corn syrup, but it can also be used in the manufacturing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and textiles.

“We’re looking at products like nutritional powder made from processed bananas, which is becoming popular in Japan as a health and weight loss aid,” Chuang said.

Despite these efforts to revive the industry, farmer Lu Ming, 76, has given up waiting for the banana’s ascendance.

In 1967, Lu decided to switch from farming rice to bananas. For two decades he cultivated banana trees in Greater Kaohsiung’s Qishan District (旗山), rising at 5am and working until sunset. In the beginning, he earned enough money to hire workers to help harvest the fruit and package it for shipment.

However, Taiwanese farmers could not compete with lower labor costs in the Philippines and exports began to plunge. According to the council, banana exports to Japan — a major market — plummeted to 9,161 tonnes last year, from 42,600 tonnes in 1967.

By the early 1980s, Lu could no longer afford laborers, so he and his wife began selling candy from sidewalk stalls to make ends meet. Lu, who still farms and works odd jobs, said that now, there are years when his banana harvest brings in less than NT$100,000, far below the average annual income of NT$452,400.

Although the profitability of farming bananas has diminished, a silver lining can be found in the businesses that have sprung up around the memories of the boom times.

Once a warehouse for bananas before they were loaded onto ships destined for Japan, the Banana Pier in Greater Kaohsiung is now a seaside entertainment complex. The Banana New Paradise restaurant appeals to nostalgic diners by featuring an indoor recreation of a typical 1960s village, and Qishan-based rock group Youthbanana organizes tours and working holidays at nearby farms, including Lu’s fields.

Although farming bananas has become increasingly less profitable, Lu said he has never wanted to stop cultivating them.

“When I was younger, we would roast bananas like yams, feed the peels to pigs and use the leaves to steam buns or fold into toy boats for our children,” he said. “It wasn’t just about growing and selling. It’s a culture that I want to survive.”