By KP Manikandan, Manager, Farm Fresh Banana
In the 1990s, bananas were cultivated in a traditional manner using suckers for planting, following flood irrigation method and engaging lots of manual workers to perform the farm operations. The cultivation was very traditional and fruit handling was rough causing huge damage to the tune of 30-35 per cent. During 1996-97, banana farmers of Theni district in Tamil Nadu, India, faced an acute drought and they were unable to market the produce for a decent return. Farmers faced significant financial burden, which led many banana growers to leave cultivation and also forced them to sell their land. During this period farmers were able to produce 15-17 kg per bunch (17-18 tonnes per acre) and earned Indian Rupees (Rs.) 40,000 to 50,000 (approx. US$ 600-750) per acre.
Nevertheless, there was no cold storage facility available in the vicinity to store and ripen the produce. Sometimes farmers left the produce in the field itself owing to low price i.e., Rs. 3 to 4 per kg of fruit. Traditionally, the un-ripened green bananas were kept in a dark room and ripened either by carbide stone or smoke in a closed room. The next day, the treated bananas ripen automatically, and needed to be marketed within a day, failing which they would be of no use. As a result, the bananas had very poor shelf- life and quality.
To overcome the issue, several methods to improve the quality and the safety of the fruits were applied. The objective in those days was to serve good quality bananas to the consumer and also enable better revenue for the farming community through organized marketing of fruits. In the process, travel all over India was undertaken by a team (which included the founder of Farm Fresh Banana) to study the developments in this sector but they did not find anything new.
One day, however, the team found that Safal market of Bangalore was trying something new for banana ripening.In Safal market, raw bananas were kept in plastic crates, and then taken into chambers where they were treated with ethylene at a concentration of 100 ppm. After 4 days, bananas were found to develop yellow colour, with a shelf-life of 4-5 days.
The team closely observed the operation of Safal market and came up with new ideas to provide better service to customers. The investment for plastic crates also needed more money which posed a problem that had to be overcome. Slowly and steadily, the ripening process was found viable and suitable and the team thought of bringing everything together so as to get the best out of it in an organized manner.
The team attended a three year training in Supply Chain Management organized by Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore in collaboration with Michigan State University, USA, and handled by Dr. E. Vadivel and Dr. T. N. Balamohan. The innovative ideas gained from the training were then implemented in the field. The plight of the Theni banana farmers also prompted the team to learn and adopt hi-tech agricultural practices in banana cultivation under the expert guidance of Jain Irrigation Systems Limited, Jalgaon, and execute it in their area.
The Government of India provided aid for cold storage/ripening chambers through the Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI). Thereafter, Farm Fresh Banana and APK Banana World were officially established as integrated cold chain units for Banana procurement, processing and marketing.
Today, the scenario has changed and bananas are cultivated almost all year round using drip irrigation for more than 95 per cent of the requirement, tissue culture saplings, and other latest technology needing low power. Currently, farmers are producing on average 30-36 kg per bunch (40 tons per acre).
In the field, banana bunches are covered using polythene sleeves to prevent blemishes and damage by insects and pathogens. This helps to reduce the wastage of fruits. The bunch cover is essential for export of banana to other countries. Similarly, rope harvest, a new method being practiced in Theni, helps prevent damage to fingers.
After harvest, the raw bananas are cleaned with water, alum and a small dose of bavistin solution to prevent fungal infection. In this process, the cleaned and packed raw bananas are subjected to pre-cooling to reduce the field heat/ fruit temperature. After that, they are taken to the ripening chamber and treated with ethylene at a concentration of 100 ppm (0.01 per cent). The room is then kept closed for about 24 hours. Afterwards, the ripening chamber is opened to let out the ethylene gas and the carbon dioxide released during the initial ripening phase. However, the treated bananas are maintained at 18ºC, reduced to 15ºC over three to four days.
To improve the quality of banana, a linkage with a company from the Philippines was established for fine tuning the process. Technologies such as bud injection, hand spray, bunch cover, hands harvest through rope etc, were introduced. These technologies were together called “Fruit Care” and disseminated to banana farmers through several training programmes on:
- Adoption of new technologies to improve the livelihood of farmers.
- Adoption of modern irrigation practives and fertigation to increase the yield of bananas.
- Forward integration of banana farmers in context of pre- and post-harvest practices.
- Increasing farm income by adopting water resource conservation techniques and integrated agricultural practices.
The hard work put in has been successful in increasing the area and production of banana from 4,000 acres in 2004 to 35,000 acres in 2012. As noted above, the bunch weight has also increased from 15-17 kg/ plant to 30 to 35 kg/ plant. The income of banana farmers in Theni district has sharply increased from Rs. 40,000 to 50,000/- (approx. US$ 600-750) per acre to Rs.150,000 to 200,000/acre (approx. US$ 2,270-3,030). In addition:
- Arrangements were made for the farmers to get a loan for up to Rs. 100,000 (approx. US$ 1,500) without any documents as crop loan @ 7 per cent interest by establishing tie-ups with leading banks.
- Arrangements were made for the transfer of the latest technologies, financial support, buy back assurance for fruits, supply of Tissue Culture (TC) seedlings, etc. to all the banana farmers in and around Theni as well as in neighbouring districts. The bananas are being procured from farmers and marketed locally as well as internationally.
Several farmers and entrepreneurs have subsequently adopted the latest technologies. In Theni district, more than 10 ripening chambers have been established following the establishment of Farm Fresh Banana and APK Banana World units at Chinnamanur. Students from schools and colleges visit the site and undergo industrial tie-up programmes here.
The Farm Fresh Banana network’s services have reached far and wide across various Indian states. Theni’s success story has also evoked a huge response and promoted increased banana cultivation in several parts of Tamil Nadu state. The cold storage facility established at Chinnamanur helps banana farmers obtain a decent return for their work while providing buyback assurance. Steps taken by Farm Fresh to export bananas to Gulf countries, Russia and Iran have yielded positive results.
Furthermore, in Tamil Nadu, Farm Fresh is the first entity to establish traceability in banana for marketing. All bananas are entering the retail chain with the sticker/label of “APK Bananas”. This signifies the quality, identity and origin of the bananas. Because of traceability, there is now a huge demand in the export market. Due to scientific cultivation techniques, the produce from the field is found to be of high quality. The price offered to both the growers and the retailers is very lucrative as well as sustainable.
As for future plans, some well-known companies in Tamil Nadu have decided to connect the Southern and Northern parts of India through rail to improve the marketing of bananas. Bananas will be transported to Northern states and in turn, apple from Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh; potato from Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal; and orange from Nagpur and Nasik will be transported to Southern states. This will reduce the duration required for transportation, and keep costs and wastage to a minimum. Consumers will also be able to get good quality produce at a reasonable price. This will further create a better future for farmers and traders.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Tamil Nadu Banana Growers Federation undertook initiatives at the national level to promote bananas. They have identified banana as the nodal crop for the State of Tamil Nadu owing to the presence of distinct varieties and in view of the quantum of production. This is also to promote different varieties of bananas from the state and to enable creation of strong brand equity for the bananas grown in Tamil Nadu.
In conclusion, The Theni district farmers have benefited a lot from the Institutional interventions, Government programmes and adoption of new technologies in banana cultivation and the results are visible. The average productivity in Theni District is 80 tons per hectare which is bringing prosperity to the banana farmers. Other districts with potential are, however, still lagging behind. It is Farm Fresh Banana’s endeavour to motivate farmers and officials in these districts for improving production, and to showcase Theni’s effort to the rest of India.
Think Banana, Eat Banana and Live Banana
Photos: KP Manikandan