Going global How one woman in Uganda is taking cooking banana to the international market
Technical guidance and support
Annette has taken advantage of a partnership between RTB and the Uganda Fruits & Vegetable Exporters & Producers Association who provide technical expertise and guidance to smallholder farmers like her. "My work is focused on building the capacity of local producers to understand export market dynamics so they can pitch directly to that market. I link them to a wider platform so they can access information and understand the market," explains Hasifah, the coordinator for the association.
Hasifah and her team are a key component of the ‘Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses’ (RTB ENDURE) project in Uganda which is led by RTB and is working with farmers including Annette. "We are linking farmers who grow specific varieties of green cooking banana that the export market wants with companies who can help them sell. We want to improve the capacity of farmers to be able to step into this market," says Hasifah. The export market is primarily driven by East and Central Africans (Rwandese, Kenyan, Tanzania, Eastern DRC , Burundi) who are living abroad and who create a high demand for the item internationally.
Excited about the possibilities for the green cooking banana trade in Uganda, Hasifah believes that the association plays an important role linking farmers with market: "It has particular quality requirements that our producers have to be able to meet. These market requirements need to be communicated directly to the farmers and that is where we come in."
Quality and consistency: staple requirements for the export market
Annette does not work alone. Her ability to meet the demands of the export market rely on a network of mainly female smallholder banana farmers, and workers from the local area who she employs to harvest, clean, weigh and box the products.
Annette works closely with a Kampala based export company. She receives an order from the company for a specific variety and volume - often with a very short deadline for delivery - she then sources the products and, brings together her team to package the produce according to export requirements. Orders are usually for 1,000 - 1200 kilograms but Annette is hopeful this will grow as she strengthens the relationship with the export company and establishes a routine to fulfill orders.
Annette is aware the she must gain the trust of the export company through provision of quality product each time. Hasifah is glad to see this is a priority for Annette highlighting that: "The key issues for export is consistency and quality. Farmers must be able to plan their production to meet export needs. The export market does not stop; they do not want to hear excuses . So we have to groom our farmers to be able to supply all year round so that we are able to fulfill the market demands".
Meeting the unique demands of the export market
"Each box must weight 10 kilograms. I inspect each banana before it is packed to ensure the exporter will approve it. I look at color, size and ripeness. Once I decide they are suitable for export I clean and package them. For each box I receive 15,000 Ugandan shillings." Annette explains.
Hasifah has seen the demand for variety change over time: "We used to export a lot of Kibuzi. Now the Musakala variety is also growing in popularity as is Mpologama. The market is broadening and we are looking at how to expand our production in line with market needs".
Through the RTB ENDURE project, Bioversity International has trained Annette and local farmers on new approaches to help them meet the requirements of the export market. Hasifah outlines one technique which has been popular with the farmers: "When you stagger production, you are reducing the time between when farmers would have a lot of bananas, and when they wouldn’t - you are balancing production in other words. Farmers take up techniques like this as it means they can consistently produce. It means that they will be able to have produce all year round which improves their ability as a supplier".
There are challenges. And opportunities.
In the past farming was a real challenge for Annette. "We used to waste a lot of the produce as it would get damaged or ripen to quickly or we would not be able to find the right market.
The East African Highland Banana varieties which are exported are bought in kilograms and the rejected bananas (those not sold to the export market) are sold to the domestic market as fingers packed in poly-ethene bags. Annette now earns more from a bunch than what she was receiving before when she was only selling to domestic market. "Now I bulk these cooking bananas and sell them locally. I also collect and distribute them to local traders who sell them in the city," explains Annette.
"My biggest challenge is with transport. Usually I travel with the product to make sure there are no problems along the way. This is the most stressful part for me. Sometimes I have to stay overnight - but I also have to make sure my husband and children are taken care of," Annette explains.
"At the beginning, I think people doubted that I could do this. Maybe because I am a woman and they thought I was unable to manage such a business. But now people have seen my success and have also benefited from it as I have been able to provide work for people in the local area. I am also sharing my knowledge so they can also improve their farms," Annette says with a big smile on her face, clearly proud of her achievements.
Hasifah explains that improving the position of women in the banana value chain is a key part of their work: "We have seen a number of women exporters come on board and we have seen companies emerge that are headed by women, which is fabulous. We also see women traders who are engaged in the banana value chain taking the next step towards entering this new market.”
As Annette continues to clean, sort and pack the bananas she tells us that she is happy with the money that she is making: "I decide with my husband about how the money is spent. We usually spend it on food, things for the house and for school fees for our children. I keep track of all the money I make and how it is spent. I think this is very important."