BanaBay rocks the banana boat

VIDEO: Mark O'Sullivan discusses the future shape of banana retailing

​Birmingham-based grower-importer BanaBay is working hard to reverse what it sees as a decline in the eating quality of bananas in the UK

Two years into its business life, BanaBay has set its sights firmly on penetrating the retail sector in the UK, without jeopardising its stated aim of returning great taste to the banana category.

By focusing on premium product and working closely with its customers, BanaBay believes it can offer shoppers a more consistent quality of banana, at a value that compares favourably with competing fruit.

“More and more these days consumers are getting fantastic products but I think we’re missing out with bananas,” BanaBay’s managing director, Mark O’Sullivan, tells Produce Business UK. 

“Ten years ago Wal-Mart came into the UK (through Asda) and really shook up the market in terms of starting a banana price war,” he adds.

“That had a big, cascading effect across the industry and I think more retailers started sourcing from potentially unfashionable sources that gave them probably a cheaper option to keep the consumer price low.”

Today, O’Sullivan says bananas cost nearly 40% less than 10 years ago, and as a consequence, the bananas both retail buyers and consumers are able to purchase now are not of the same quality they were offered a decade and more ago.

The shift has also been dramatic and difficult for the entire supply chain, particularly UK wholesalers, says O’Sullivan, adding: 

“I think at some stage there has to be some realisation that this is not sustainable and that everyone [in the supply chain] should be benefitting, with the consumer getting the best quality banana as well.

“Bananas are a staple product, like milk and bread,” he says. “They’re the biggest selling fruit almost all over the world. But if people were offered a better quality banana that has great taste they would make that change – people already buy apples for much higher prices.

“There’s a huge amount of information that we can share and if it’s done in the right way it will change people’s thinking about bananas. Once people have more knowledge and understanding, that will drive a lot of the pricing structures, issues and challenges in the industry.”

Already, O’Sullivan claims there are certain developments happening in the UK market with regards to price increases that will naturally have an impact on people’s views of the sector in the long term.

“The banana market is continually evolving,” he notes. “I think price is something that will also change. But there have to be ongoing discussions between all the groups to make a long-term strategy for this industry.

“We want to have more involvement and take a more active in discussions with the retailers.”

Back to basics

BanaBay set out in December 2012 with a mission to source the world’s best bananas. By partnering with an experienced grower in Ecuador, the company quickly established itself as a vertically integrated business with a firm grip on quality right from field to fork.

“Ecuador’s fertile soils produce the best quality bananas but Ecuador is only the fifth-largest source in terms of UK imports because of the retail landscape.

“We have a fantastic grounding with an experienced grower in Ecuador with quality which, for me, is second to none in terms of the reinvestment that they put back into their plantations. “We’ve gone back to the taste that bananas had years ago,” O’Sullivan says.

Importantly, O’Sullivan points out that BanaBay also brings a distinct approach in terms of its sales technique, its customer management and the way in which it aims to operate as an extension to its customers’ businesses.

“That’s why we’ve been so successful in the last two years,” he points out. “We’ve really found a model that works. Now it’s about approaching that with a different strategy to really try and impact on what the banana industry can become in the future.”

Although it has successful retail partnerships overseas, the company has yet to secure, for instance, any retail relationships to date, due in large part to the structure of the market.

“The UK is very, very different compared with other markets which makes it challenging in terms of how we’ve developed our business, because you need a couple of years before you can get a retail deal,” says O’Sullivan.

He adds that BanaBay’s initial focus on Ecuador meant the company did not have the security or continuity of supply demanded by UK retailers.

“We went and looked at the gaps,” he reveals. “We’ve started in Mexico and we’re looking at the Dominican Republic and Colombia. We have options, so now it’s about finding out what kind of spread the retailers want.”

Despite the expansion, BanaBay has still turned down some UK invites to present tenders while it finalises a number of projects that will prepare O’Sullivan to approach retailers during 2015.

“We’re getting some of our farms registered as Rainforest Alliance and we’re increasing Fairtrade accreditation across our farms because there is more of a push in the UK for Fairtrade.

We also have a traceability project which we have to roll out to improve our controls – it’s what retailers will require as part of the service, especially in the UK.

“I only want to speak to UK retailers when we’re absolutely ready to fulfil their requirements,” he says.

“There are few retailers in the UK that we would naturally want to speak with first because of their expectations of quality.”

Ready to roll

In addition to its offer of conventional, organic, Fairtrade, baby and pre-packed bananas, BanaBay continues to develop new sources and product lines as it begins to develop an overarching fruit brand.

Already, the company is supplying Ecuadorian pineapples and South American mangoes to a major retailer in New Zealand, and will launch Banabino baby bananas at Fruit Logistica 2015.

O’Sullivan says: “We want to offer a solution that covers the product as well as the brand to ensure the consumer gets the very best quality but also the same value proposition – BanaBay doesn’t have to be the most expensive product in the marketplace.”

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  1. Harry Theoharous | Feb 08, 2015
    Great initiative and a timely development in premium eating bananas

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