Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Banana chips shortage - Manufacturers take a hit as higher prices push farmers to tourism

Published:Sunday | April 9, 2017 | 4:00 AMRyon Jones
Jamaica Producers (JP), with supply from its factory in Dominican Republic is doing better that manufacturers and its St Mary Banana Chips were the only brand in one Corporate Area supermarket last Friday.

Some local banana chips manufacturers are unable to meet demand for the popular snack due to a shortage of the fruit.

Manager of the leading banana chips manufacturer in the west, Robert Chambers of Maroon Pride, said despite planting a portion of the banana the company needs, its production has been significantly hampered, as the number of small farmers who normally supply the remaining amount has significantly declined.

The farmers who have stayed with bananas now make the bulk of their money from selling the ripe fruit to the hoteliers and higglers, who pay the farmers significantly more for the fruit than the chips manufacturers.

"Right now, we can't operate for five days a week, we operate for two or three days," Chambers told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The production is really low and this is because of the difficulty in sourcing the supply, so we just give thanks that we can still stay afloat," added Chambers.

 

NOT ENOUGH GREEN BANANAS

 

In the meantime, the company which manufactures what is arguably Jamaica's most popular brand of banana chips, 'Chippies', says it is able to supply only 10 per cent of demand.

"There is a shortage because we are just not getting enough green bananas," said a company official who asked not to be named.

"We do export a little bit and some of the persons we export to we usually supply them with 40ft containers, but now they have to be taking 20ft containers because we cannot supply. One particular distributor who is on Amazon hasn't received any product for the past month.

"Business has been impacted in a very negative way. We have downsized quite a bit in terms of both factory staff and office staff. We have been doing that for a while because of the whole supply situation. ... So when people leave we don't replace them," added the official.

In the meantime, Jennifer Christian, company secretary at SOS Foods Limited, makers of Nicies Banana Chips, said that this year has been better when compared to 2016 where the availability of bananas is concerned, but the company is still not been able to meet the demand.

"It is a yearly problem which sees us losing revenue," said Christian.

The banana chips industry was developed from using the bananas that did not meet export standards.

But a smaller amount of the fruit has been available for chips manufacturers since 2004 when a series of weather shocks devastated the industry and saw several farmers quitting the sector.

"We had a large export market in the 1990s and early 2000s when export was in excess of 50,000 tons, sometimes over 70,000 tons, and we were producing the same amount for the domestic market," said general manager of the Jamaica Banana Board, Janet Conie.

"Now we are not exporting a lot. Last year, we exported 410 tons while our local production was 57,000 tons," added Conie.

According to Donald Elvey, general manager of the All-Island Banana Growers Association, when farmers sell the ripe fruit to the higglers, they get about twice the money they would get from the chips manufacturers for each pound.

Elvey said this increases to about three times more in earnings for the farmers when the bananas are sold to the tourism sector.

"The real issue is that we need to increase domestic banana production by another 20,000 tons. We are on target to do that, but again, because of the cyclic production, you will find that during the summer months, the farmers have difficulties in selling their banana, so people are averse to further expansion in acreage," said Elvey.

 

IMPACT OF STORMS

 

One of the largest growers of bananas locally, Jamaica Producers (JP), manufacturers of St Mary Banana Chips, established a factory in the Dominican Republic (DR) in 2006 from where it has been importing some of its chips.

"The country (Jamaica) had seen a series of hurricanes beginning with Ivan in 2004, then there were Dennis and Emily. There were five of them (storms); the last one that took us out of the banana export business was Gustav in 2008," David Martin, general manager of JP Tropical Foods, told The Sunday Gleaner.

"We decided we needed two supply options, so we still operate a factory in Annotto Bay, St Mary, and we commissioned a factory in the DR in August 2007. And there have been hurricanes since, as recently as 2012, which flattened the farm here in Jamaica, which we have put back up since then. But when it was flattened the only place we could supply our chips from was the DR factory," said Martin.

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com