Philippine folk literature traces the banana fruit’s origin to a young man’s hand that was cut off by the disapproving father of the lady the man adored.
The unfortunate lad’s hand fell to the ground and, after a while, a tree grew on the very same spot and bore the first banana fruit.
This morbid tale, of course, is just the figment of a fertile imagination.
Scientists say the banana fruit has its true origin in Malaysia. It later made its way to India, China, the Caribbean, and Central America, courtesy of early explorers and traders.
Today, bananas are among the most widely consumed foods in the world as it is grown in 132 countries. In the Philippines, it’s starchier, firmer variety (called the plantain or cardaba) has created a following in the export industry, especially in the huge Chinese market.
RP banana exports were given a boost through the efforts of the Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) Program. The five-year program (2002-2007), done in cooperation with the RP Department of Agriculture (DA) and funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), was designed to boost economic growth in Mindanao. And what better way to achieve it than to tap and enhance the supply and quality of bananas in Mindanao.
For 2006, DA estimates in the region had banana plantations at 225,589 hectares. To help the banana chips industry, the GEM Program conducted seminars on effective farming practices and disease management, provided a direct link between cardaba growers and e banana-chip processors, and greater access to improved technologies.
The results: A great surge in productivity and the quality of products. Philippine banana-chip exports to China dramatically increased, from a ho-hum US$120,000 in 2002 to an impressive US$5.2 million in 2006.
The GEM Program also paved the way for some banana-chip processors to penetrate foreign markets. Last June, for instance, banana-chip manufacturers were able to join major trade fairs in China, such as the Food, Hotel, and Catering Show in Beijing, in anticipation of additional business from the groups organizing the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Philippines has also established a market in Vietnam, which has become a transshipment point for banana-chip exports to China. (Vietnam benefits from the trade as it enjoys advantageous tariff rates due to bilateral pacts with China.)
The Russian Federation has also emerged as a new export market for Philippine banana chips, reaching US$1 million in shipments for 2006. Traditional markets for RP banana chips include the US, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.
Crops vs. Guns
Aside from advancing Mindanao’s economy, the GEM Program aimed to consolidate peace in the region, which for decades has served as a battleground between government military forces and insurgent groups.
GEM addressed Mindanao’s insurgency problem via the Targeted Commodity Expansion Program– Livelihood Enhancement and Peace Program, which assists ex-MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) members in growing cardaba crop.
The annual value of Philippine banana-chip exports stands at approximately US$35 million — and Mindanao supplies 70% to 80% of total production. To sustain that output, the industry allocates, at least, 30,000 hectares for cardaba plantation.
Since the industry is dominated by small-holder farmers, whose farm size measures a hectare or less, the industry is estimated to have anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 farmers. Currently, there are 20 banana-chip processors in Mindanao.
Meanwhile in another area in the region, Davao, banana chips are slowly being introduced as substitutes for junk food in school cafeterias due to their nutritional value. Bananas are packed with potassium, which lowers hypertension. They are also rich sources of Vitamin C and B6, which boost the immune system.
Despite glowing developments in banana exports, sad news occasionally mars the landscape.
The Manufacturers and Exporters Banana Chips Association of the Philippines (MEBCAP) sees a 10% drop in shipments this year due to last year’s destructive typhoons, which caused a cardaba supply shortage and a burgeoning demand in Luzon.
Furthermore, the price increase on coconut oil (a major component in banana-chip production) further cut the profit of exporters.
Some months back, two tons of banana chips imported from the Philippines by the Shandong-based Qingdao Company were flagged after they were found to contain high levels of sulfur dioxide. The news puzzled officials from the RP Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) as sulfur dioxide is not used in making banana chips. And even if it were used, the chemical compound would not have caused harm since it’s a common food preservative accepted in the US, the European Union, and Japan.
An investigation by Philippine officials revealed that the imported goods were actually dried bananas, not banana chips. Although the allegations were wrong, BFAD officials stated they believed the ban was not made in retaliation of an RP ban on the China made White Rabbit candies, and that China, just like the Philippines, was simply doing its job of protecting its people.
These setbacks have not daunted players in the Philippine banana chips industry. Most believe that as long as the correct measures are in place, the industry’s steady growth will not get cut short unlike the young man’s hand in Philippine folklore.
print ed: 12/07