The last 12 months have been a challenging time for Costa Rica’s banana sector, with exports and production falling sharply in 2015 as a result of heavy rains and flooding, not to mention a loss of market share in the UK over recent years. But with major social and environmental improvements underway, the future is looking brighter. Produce Business UK speaks with Corbana president Jorge Sauma about how Costa Rica is repositioning its offer
It is hard to understate the importance of the UK market to Costa Rica’s banana sector. The biggest consumer of bananas in the European Union – according to non-governmental organisation Banana Link – every person in the UK consumes the equivalent of an 18kg box of bananas each year.
Over the last two decades total imports have doubled; from 478,000 tonnes in 1995 to 1.16m tonnes in 2015. Some 14% of the bananas imported into the UK every year is sourced from Costa Rica, putting the Central American country just behind Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
However, it’s worth pointing out that Costa Rica has lost ground, having been overtaken by Colombia in 2010 as the largest exporter to the UK, and the Dominican Republic as the largest supplier of Fairtrade and organic bananas. Costa Rica by contrast is largely absent from both categories.
But within the country’s two principal banana export market regions – Europe and the US – the UK continues to be a major source of revenue for the country. So says national banana corporation Corbana, which is looking to Europe – and in particular the UK – for further export growth.
“The UK market is very important,” explains Corbana president Jorge Sauma. “It has been one of the principal export destinations for our fruit for many years. It’s also a market with demanding consumers in two senses; that of environmental and social concerns, in which we have made a significant progress.”
Indeed, the industry faces the challenge of maintaining its ability to be competitive without compromising the country’s environmental and social strengths. As bananas remain to be Costa Rica’s leading agricultural export – worth an estimated US$900m (£625m) every year – the sector continues to offer an important source of employment in rural areas of Costa Rica and the Caribbean where there are few job opportunities.
But with social and environmental programmes in place, Corbana’s president believes the sector is well positioned to meet the demand of discerning UK consumers, who he describes as being very knowledgeable when it comes to environmental and social welfare concerns.
Thanks to the PGI (protected geographical indicator) status of Costa Rican bananas having been recognised in Costa Rica, and recently approved by the European Union, Sauma believes the marque will help to deliver a competitive advantage for Costa Rican exporters in the UK and Europe.
“Our strategy is to differentiate our product by our means of production, and the social working conditions and environmental work that we are undertaking in our country,” he says. “We already have PGI status in Costa Rica – it was the first country to recognise it – and it has now been approval by the EU, so we are going to start using it.”
Sauma says Costa Rica is making huge steps to reduce the use of pesticides and agrochemicals, while it is also helping growers to convert to biological pest controls. And when it comes to tackling future climatic challenges, Corbana has invested in a programme called Banaclima, which has had a positive impact on reducing chemical usage too.
Following the installation of seven facilities in Costa Rica’s leading banana production zones, growers can now receive up-to-the-minute information to warn of weather events in advance.
“This provides our growers with a tool for knowing – for example if there is going to be a lot of rain – not to apply fertiliser,” explains Sauma. “This has two advantages; the financial saving on the one hand, and the fact that excess fertiliser will not pollute the surrounding area.”
Climate change remains a challenge for Costa Rica’s banana industry, although improved weather conditions have led to expectations of a major recovery this year, according to Corbana.
As Sauma puts it, the Central American nation’s banana sector was affected “very strongly” by the changing climate during 2015, with the country’s total export volume falling by 14%. Although this sounds negative, Sauma says it was substantially lower than initial fears of a 23% drop in sendings.
To date, thanks to improved weather conditions, he says the sector has been able to achieve a substantial recovery in supply; a trend which it expects to continue should the climate continue to offer a positive outlook.
“In 2015, we managed to close [the year] with almost 101m boxes of bananas – the year before was 110m boxes, so it was 8.7% less than the forecast,” notes Sauma.
“This year, we hope to recover and pass the 2014 total to 111m, or 112m – if the climate continues to be as favourable as it has been.”
Tackling Panama disease
Meanwhile, Corbana is taking decisive steps to prevent the introduction of Panama disease to Costa Rica. Every two years, the association organises a banana congress – an international event for producers across the globe. This year, however, it elected to hold the gathering in Miami, the US, as a consequence of the threat posed by Fusarium Raza 4, a fungus also known as ‘el mal de Panama’ (Panama disease).
Although not yet present in Costa Rica, Sauma says Corbana decided to move the event to Florida to avoid any risk of delegates from affected countries unknowingly bringing in spores. With regards to controlling the fungus that has affected the sector in the Philippines, China and other countries, Sauma says the congress on April 19-22 also sought to discuss possible steps by bringing together 25 specialists from 26 countries from five continents.
“What we want to do is unite to combat and overcome this fungus,” explains Sauma. “I believe we will be able to achieve it with science and technology, and by working together.”