Ángel Marqués Avila. Journalist
The Canary Island plátano owes its specific characteristics to the area where it's produced. The mountainous terrain and rugged slopes, together with the varied climate on the Islands, with mild temperatures and little variation, give rise to this unique product.
Soil conditions required for plátanos have forced farmers, throughout history, to work especially hard, since they must be grown on terraces where there's nothing more than volcanic rock.
It's also worth noting that plátano plantations in the Canary Islands are generally small and located in areas with uneven terrain, which makes mechanization quite difficult. In total, there are around 8,299 farmers who produce plátanos using traditional methods, in a region where more than 80% of farms are smaller than one hectare.
The Canary Island plátano is a Cavendish banana of the genus Musa (AAA group) spp., the variety that has given it its identity. It's a climacteric fruit and, as such, its characteristics are related directly to its ripeness.
Its color varies, from green when picked to intense yellow when eaten, while the color of the pulp ranges from creamy white to yellow.
However, it's the presence of speckles on the skin of Canary Island plátanos that are its distinguishing characteristic and one of the ways we all recognize them.
It's oblong with a marked curvature and is very small; it can measure up to 14 cm long and 27 mm wide.
It has an intense, sweet flavor. This sweetness is characteristic and incomparable, and is the result of its high sugar content, which accounts for 20% of its weight when fully ripe. As a result, it's a great source of energy and is easily digestible. The sugar content is characterized by a greater amount of soluble sugar and less starch. They're also rich in potassium and phosphorous.
Their texture is slightly resistant to biting—soft and firm at the same time, and also juicy and compact.
Clavijo highlights sector progress in 2018
The President of the Canary Islands, Fernando Clavijo, underlines the importance of progress in aid for transport, farming insurance, and the need to remain united with a view to negotiating the future European farming budget. He tells us that, in 2018, plátano production increased to almost half a million tons over 9,000 hectares of farmland, despite the weather conditions during a few weeks prior to summer, which explain the nosedive in plátanos harvested, although the trend for the rest of the year was positive.
He added that, at the end of 2017, the subsector achieved a milestone in "including in the industry a line of aid for transport—a success in coordinated work for the sector and the political parties that represented them in Madrid in recent years," saying that 2018 gave rise to another notable event: "The entire Canary Island plátano sector joined together for the benefit of a common goal: defending plátanos."
According to Clavijo, the European Commission's proposal to reduce direct aid by 3.9%; the entry of bananas from non-EU countries, surpassing the stipulated limits; and the lack of oversight and control of price variations that such entry causes in the market "requires that the sector work together, in coordination with the government, to make it clear in Madrid and Brussels that the Island's producers, and the rest of the ultraperipheral regions, are united and have sufficient strength to implement the necessary measures."
The President also described 2018 as "a good year" in which "we were, among other things, able to include a fiscal and economic regimen in the statute that was very focused on farmers." He noted the importance of aspects such as considering tangible assets when paying taxes, farm insurance coverage of up to 60%, aid for water capture, and 100% aid for the transportation of farming goods, "rights recognized in a statute that provide us with the tools to self-govern and to make decisions for the Islands, from the Islands."
The banana encroaches on the Canary Island plátano
Annually, according to data at the end of 2018, approximately 512,000 tons of Canary Island plátanos are produced each year and distributed primarily on mainland Spain, although they are also exported to other EU countries, as well as to Switzerland and also France, although the latter imports organic plátanos only.
Growth in the banana's market share during the year was notable, with prices that a product like the plátano can't compete with, says Elisa Martínez, head of marketing at EUROPLÁTANO, S.A., an organization of Canary Island plátano producers. This situation has gotten worse in recent months, as banana prices are at an all-time low. As a result, 2019 Europlátano says they're looking at the situation as a way to make their main brand, Gabaceras, stand out.
In the first 10 months of 2018, more foreign fruit (301.3 million kilos) has arrived than Canary Island fruit (295.3 million kilos). Banana's cumulative market share so far this year is between 42% and 59% of the supply available on the Peninsula and in the Balearic Islands.
Rafael Hernández Reyes, President of COAG-Canarias, says that 2019 is a year of uncertainty for the Islands' plátano sector. In the last few years they have been losing market share in their main market, mainland Spain, where imported bananas account for almost 50% of the total, a figure which has doubled in barely a decade.
The goal is to recover part of the market share lost in Peninsular Spain with a distinct product that Spanish consumers value and to make progress on issues such as planning production and the search for excellence.
Fruit consumption is continuously shifting to large supermarkets as the fruit sections inside those stores have improved in recent years, offering customers the same fruit they use to buy at their neighborhood fruit shops alongside all the other products they need. This trend may not be positive for fruit and vegetable companies, since consumers generally buy less fruit and vegetables at the supermarket than they would at the fruit shop, since their shopping carts are full of other products.
The head of marketing of this plátano company says that the bulk of their products go directly to national supermarket chains and department stores like Lidl, Carrefour and Mercadona, and also to more local chains such as Ahorra Más in Madrid and MásyMás.
According to Hernández Reyes, the bulk of production is sold through supermarkets, and in recent years they have prioritized sales of bananas, or they played around with sales prices to the detriment of Canary Island plátano producers. However, broadly speaking, large supermarkets should be a strategic alliance for plátano producers, and some chains see it that way, with benefits for both parties.
Consumers commit to the Canary Island plátano
Currently, more than 350,000 MT of plátanos are sold in Spain, in supermarkets, hypermarkets and in specialized stores. National consumers continue to value plátanos from the Islands, and are willing to pay more for a better quality product. In fact, loyalty from Spanish consumers is one of the Island fruit's main strengths.
For Elisa Martinez, Canary Island plátanos are having a rough time at the moment due to the availability of bananas at such low prices. It's impossible to compete with large banana farms in Latin America, not only in terms of production volume but also in terms of policies relating to labor conditions, health and safety in the workplace, hygiene, and the environment, though the latter are doubtful in those countries.
The foreign market is growing, in the case of Europlátano which, since the end of 2016, has been gradually sending its product to the Swiss chain Coop. After weeks of sending samples and negotiating volumes, the volume doubled, stabilizing weekly orders. Our second experience outside Spain is with France, specifically with Biocoop, the leading distributor of organic products. We have been sending them organic plátanos since the end of last year.
In Spain, consumers are well are of the origin and quality behind Canary Island plátanos, which were protected for many years. With the entry of bananas, especially during crises, things became complicated for the plátano, which had to learn how to compete and stand out in an increasingly competitive free market. The situation is much more complicated in international markets, which aren't familiar with the product. Consumers must learn how to value the place that it comes from, the way it's produced, the quality and the flavor. The good news is that once they try it, they buy it again.
In December of 2018, the Canary Islands sent 26,200 tons to Peninsular Spain and the Balearic Islands, and exported 34,700 tons. Re-exports amounted to 7,500 tons, so the amount available was actually around 53,500. Compared with November, exports from the Canary Islands increased by 4%, while imports rose by 19%. As re-exports increased by 16%, the amount available was almost 15% higher than in November.
According to Hernández Reyes, in the last few years they've lost market share to bananas, with an increase in imports from Latin America (mainly Costa Rica and Colombia) and even Africa (Ivory Coast and Cameroon). This requires that local farmers work even harder to distinguish their product with a commitment to excellence that must be present from start to finish, from the farm through to sales and even in the packaging process. The degree of excellence must continue to improve. Issues such as greater respect for the environment, and compliance with higher labor standards and the quality of processes, will be key to continue to add value to Canary Island plátanos so that consumers continue to buy them.
Looking at what happened on mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands with plátanos and bananas in 2018, consumers had 512,000 tons available to them, i.e. 21,600 more than in 2017, reflecting growth of 4.5%. If the Canary Islands sent over 23,600 tons less than in 2017 (-7.5%), banana imports increased by 48,600 (+19.5%) while re-exports increased by 3,366 tons (+4%).
Sales outside Spain is a pending issue, says Hernández Reyes. Until now, and excluding sales in Portugal and some in Morocco, Germany and Switzerland, they haven't been able (or they haven't known how) to set up sales channels outside Spain, which is a weakness, especially when prices plummet or during those periods that the traditional market can't absorb production. According to COAG-Canarias, we have to work together to continue to try to enter new markets.