As the banana buyer for Equal Exchange, this September, I got the opportunity to work and live alongside Guabo, a small farmer banana co-operative in southern Ecuador. Guabo is Equal Exchange’s longest banana partner; the two organizations have worked together for over 10 years to bring Fair Trade, organic bananas from small-scale growers to the U.S. marketplace.
Here at Equal Exchange, we are always trying to challenge the traditional model for relationships between farmers and importers. We believe in longterm partnerships, engage producers in our strategic planning process, and work hard to connect producers to consumers in a food system that is designed to distance them. The idea of a month-long exchange stemmed from this notion.
Being Guabo’s client, working out of the Guabo office for a month while doing homestays with two out of the 125 Guabo farmer members, was no routine concept. That said, Guabo graciously opened its doors to me. During my time in Ecuador, I came to realize how this experience was a result of the trust and partnership we have built together over the last decade. Surely, it takes a lot of trust and confidence for Guabo to give me a peek into the inner workings and operations of their business - both the parts that are working and those that are not; the successes and the challenges.
The month was an opportunity to learn more about the other side of the supply chain and share the realities of our side of the supply chain as buyers. Some of the questions we are trying to address are unanswerable in the course of a month: Are the economics of banana farming working for farmers? How can small farmers continue to compete in an industry dominated by plantations? How can we share the stories of our producer partners in a real and authentic way?
Even if the answers to those questions still remain elusive, what I did leave with was some deep and impactful impressions of what life is like for an Ecuadorian banana farmer, the passion that banana farmers have to run a business that’s in season 52 weeks of the year, and the vision that Guabo farmers have to work cooperatively in order to compete against the giants of the banana industry.
It’s difficult to capture the experience, but below are some photos that help tell some of the story.
With the Guabo staff and Board of Directors at my farewell celebrations. From left to right: Paul, Nataly, Segundo, Agustin, Vicky, Fabiola, me, Marcello, Vanessa, Luis, Edison and Karen.
Bananas arriving from the farm to the pack station. Bananas are a weekly business, in season 52 weeks of the year. One day each week, farmers harvest and pack bananas for export.
Reporting bright and early on pack day. One of Ravdeep’s highlights was seeing the packing process from start to finish, including the work over the course of the week to get ready for the pack day. For example, each week farmers head to the cooperative’s warehouse to pick up their boxes and supplies for the week’s pack.
Jeccica Ramon, farmer member of Guabo and host for Ravdeep’s stay, pauses for a photo with her day’s harvest and pack: 96 cases. One container of banana contains 960 cases of bananas. This means the remaining 864 cases will come from other farmer members of Guabo.
Packing a box of bananas to the exact weight of 40 lbs. is no easy feat. Each banana cluster is a different size and weight. Not to mention, bananas are fragile and need to be handled carefully. Here I am with my first packed box of Equal Exchange bananas!
Bananas are the second most exported product in Ecuador and are an integral part of the country’s economy and culture. Here’s a picture from the annual “King of the Bananas” competition where prizes are given for the largest racimo, or bunch, of bananas. The winners from the organic category are crowned in this picture.