18 Nov 2021

Pioneers reflect on 25 years of Fairtrade bananas

(c) iSteef

“Without Fairtrade, we would not have survived during the past 25 years”. Two of the first producers of Fairtrade bananas - Volta River Estates (VREL) in Ghana and ASOGUABO in Ecuador - look back on the early days of Fairtrade, and the impact on farmers and workers since then.

Twenty-five years ago, the first Fairtrade bananas appeared on supermarket shelves in Europe. For the first time, consumers were able to buy bananas that were fair to both people and planet, certified to a high ethical and sustainability standard.

Following their introduction in the Netherlands in 1996, Fairtrade bananas spread rapidly until now, a quarter of a century on, you can buy them across the globe. Nearly 750 million kilos of Fairtrade bananas were sold in 2020.

The first container load of Fairtrade bananas were sold under the Oké brand in Dutch supermarkets in November 1996. They were imported by Agrofair, a company set up by the NGO Solidaridad, and grown by VREL in Ghana - who are still Fairtrade certified today.

“Nico Roozen from Solidaridad asked us if we would be interested in being part of a new initiative to sell Fairtrade certified bananas,” says VREL Managing Director Huub van den Broek. “At that time, coffee and cocoa were the only Fairtrade certified products, and because Ghana already had a significant number of small-scale farmers, it made sense to get involved. We had a big advantage because two years earlier we had encouraged our workforce to become unionised, so we already fulfilled some of the Fairtrade Standard requirements.”

“We were already producing bananas with environmental and social responsibility in mind,” adds Huub. “We were also looking for ways to improve our access to EU markets, because the quota system in place at the time was very restrictive.”

Another Fairtrade pioneer was ASOGUABO, which shipped the first Fairtrade bananas from Latin America, arriving in Rotterdam docks in early 1997. “Fourteen small scale producers from the El Guabo region got together and formed a cooperative,” explains ASOGUABO’s CEO Lianne Zoeteweij. “With the help of the Dutch development cooperation agency SNV we contacted Solidaridad and persuaded Agrofair to give us a trial for three shipments. If the quality was good enough, we would get paid! Fortunately, the trial turned out well, the quality was good, and sales increased. It wasn’t long before more co-ops joined from neighbouring districts.”

Today, ASOGUABO and VREL are just two of 258 Fairtrade banana producer organisations in 16 countries, which between them employ more than 26,000 workers and provide livelihoods for more than 10,000 small scale farmers. Together in 2020, they benefitted from more than €35 million in Fairtrade Premium.

“The main advantages for us have been improved market access and better prices,” says Huub. “Without Fairtrade, we would not have survived during the past 25 years. For example, after a severe storm in 2002 which destroyed about eighty percent of our crop, we were able to obtain loans and grants to rebuild the plantation and pay our workforce. We couldn’t have done that without Fairtrade. Since July 2021 we have paid our 700 permanent employees the Fairtrade base wage, and we are striving to reach the living wage as soon as possible.”

For ASOGUABO, it was a case of strength in numbers. “Back in the 1990s, the banana business was dominated by big multinationals. Small producers had no negotiating power, we were the worst paid and sometimes they left our fruit behind on the dockside if the ships were full,” says Lianne. “Now we have direct access to international markets, and agreed prices and volumes are respected. This is a huge advantage for us.”

“Our biggest achievement is that we have stayed in business! A lot of small producers had to sell their farms but our members are still going strong. If you have long term relations as a producer you can invest in your farm and your family, and the banks are willing to give you loans.”

Twenty-five years of Fairtrade bananas is a good enough reason to celebrate - but the future is far from secure. “Brexit has brought us a lot uncertainty for us, because the UK is our biggest market,” says Huub. “But I am optimistic about the future. I am confident that Fairtrade will become more mainstream and that the emphasis will shift towards living wages and sustainable farming.”

In Ecuador, Lianne agrees. “The younger generations are definitely pushing for a more socially and environmentally just business world,” she says. “Supermarkets know they can’t ignore this trend.”

Want to know more about our favourite yellow fruit? Here’s five reasons we’re bananas about Fairtrade bananas!