BanaBay is creating its own brand of Ecuadorian plantain chips while expanding its presence in the booming avocado space.
The tropical fruit supplier is diversifying its product portfolio, brand and markets this year with one of its key projects – transforming South American plantains into crisps/chips for the retail market.
Speaking with PBUK during the trade event last week, managing director of BanaBay, Mark O’Sullivan, takes us through the new plantain chips innovation as well as expanding the booming avocado category and breaking into new markets.
Last month, the UK-headquartered company expanded its tropical fruit basket with the introduction of avocado, lime and mango varieties from Latin America as well as setting up a new export company in Ecuador to firm up supply from plantation to port.
Branching out from its core banana business, the producer importer wanted to tap into the ever-increasing avocado demand and has been working with growers in the Dominican Republic to find the best varieties, including Semil 34, Hass and Carla as well as Hass from Colombia.
“With avocado, there is just not enough supply for the demand,” O’Sullivan told PBUK.
“You can see from last year, the development and growth in avocado which shows it’s a key product for us and we really wanted to focus on it. It’s not necessarily easy to source avocado because it’s a product everyone wants.
“I think we’re in a good position because what we offer is a brand and a long-term strategy, it’s not just a trading option. We’re trying to develop something that can incorporate across a number of different products.”
Avocado represents the obvious choice for BanaBay to diversify, something O’Sullivan is keen to do throughout 2017.
“You see at this event, there are so many companies that are one-product focused and I’ve always been conscious that we want to do much more than that because we want to offer our customers more of a spread of products, but still built around the same quality, the same care, but through one account process.
“Everyone is so busy these days so if we spread a number of products, we can make our customers’ lives easier, then it’s a natural fit.”
Part of BanaBay’s strategy is a long-term process of bringing in produce and creating branded products that can, over the years, challenge some of the bigger players.
“We are offering some samples of plantain chips; we’re creating two brands of plantain chips at the moment, one in conjunction with one of my partners in Ecuador and another that we’re developing from scratch in the UK.
“We think the Ecuadorian brand is probably more focused around the Latin American countries, whereas for the Western and the Asian market, we need to create a different look and feel.
“We are going through a process of market testing at the moment as well as brand creation, and we’ve brought a new graphic designer into the business so all of our designs are worked on internally.”
O’Sullivan explains the plantain crisps are in the first phase with focus groups scheduled for later this month and the beginning of March where three different names (being kept confidential for now), plus different branding options, will be proposed.
“We’re looking around May to be more exact with additional information,” he adds.
Linking in to supermarkets
Creating a branded product is one way BanaBay could find new links into retail, by offering an innovative product that then open doors for fresh produce lines.
“We’re trying to find links into supermarkets; there might not naturally be a way in through fresh produce but a fresh produce angle could open up in another way. It’s about utilising and capitalising on where there is a strength in some of the countries we are working in.
“Plantain is a massive product in Ecuador and it’s so unknown in so many different areas and cultures around the world. When you try them when you’re in the country, you understand that it’s a really nice product.
“And they go great with beer.”
BanaBay’s mission is to bring new products into the business, but they have to feel like a natural fit, according to O’Sullivan.
“I expect by July we will have the finished (plantains) product signed off ready to sell and market at different events.
“In terms of processing, we’re looking at either the UK or producing directly in Ecuador. We’ve got different options at the moment from a number of manufacturers in Ecuador and one option in the UK, so we’re working through the pricing and cost assumption to come up with the best solutions.”
Looking at BanaBay’s seasonal calendar, bananas tend to be weak during the summer months and so there are opportunities here for new produce to fill the gaps.
“There are several different projects that we’re working on that could open up a number of products by the end of this year. We’re still conscious of certain periods when bananas are very weak, so we’re trying to bring in more products to make the business solid and stronger through periods of peaks and troughs that could affect financial performance.
“As we go towards the back end of the year, there’s a number of citrus products and other things we’re working on.
“I can’t say for definite that we have another two or three products that will be aligned. But I would say that across two different buyers of bananas, we’re working on three products which they have in their country (Egypt and Greece), that we could turn into a BanaBay branded product – watch this space.”
US and UK markets
BanaBay has a small team in Atlanta exploring stateside breakthroughs to expand from the current key markets of New Zealand, Korea, China, Tunisia, Moldova, Ukraine and mainland Europe.
At the same time, getting back into the British market is on O’Sullivan’s mind for 2017, despite some cost implications connected with the weak pound and the fallout of Brexit.
“The US and UK are the two markets you would normally think are the safe bets but it’s finding the right balance as these markets are so mature, all of the big players are there and doing very well with amazing systems to service customers, whereas we’ve always had to try and find the right niche.
“The immediate impact of Brexit is obviously on currency and the confidence and stability of the financial markets. The strength of the pound taking an impact obviously affected us in our evaluations because we are mainly a dollar business but converting back to sterling.
“I think it’s still far too early to understand the true dynamics of what Brexit is going to mean but if you look at the work Theresa May is doing at the moment, potentially there could be some good deals out there in the long-term, including with the US.”
BanaBay did supply the British market but withdrew two years ago. Could that change?
“I’m always positive about what Britain can do as a nation and I’m sure Britain will find a way to be strong because we’re very innovative in our thinking and we have some amazing people in the UK. Businesses always find a way to move forward.
“We feel that by diversifying across our products and by improving our banana programmes and our costs linked to that, the UK could be a good market for us.
“We’re doing more analysis and I wouldn’t be surprised to see BanaBay coming back to the UK.”