Taiwan Tries to Revive Its Banana Export Industry
September 17, 2013
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — The problem with bananas, for the Taiwanese farmers who grow them, is that they are not pineapples.
Taiwan’s banana exports have fallen sharply, and prices the farmers get have fallen, too. The solution would seem simple: better marketing, as has been done for almonds, raisins or pomegranates in the United States.
The Taiwan Banana Research Institute wants to make the banana a luxury product. It hopes consumers will consider the Pei-Chiao bananas, the Cavendish variety most often grown in Taiwan, a delicacy for which they will pay a premium price. “Our goal is to position Taiwanese bananas as a brand and appeal to consumers who are willing to pay extra for fruit because it tastes better and was grown using safer farming methods,” said Chao Chih-ping, director of the institute.
But so far, the country’s efforts have fallen short.
Taiwan’s banana industry needs to discover a hit product that will increase demand and raise prices. Banana farmers look to the example of the pineapple cake, the snack savior of Taiwan’s pineapple industry.
In 2006, the Taipei city government began promoting the pastry as a souvenir of Taiwan, holding annual baking competitions and marketing it to tourists. That year, total revenue earned by Taiwan’s pineapple cake industry was 2 billion Taiwan dollars, about $67 million, according to the Taipei Bakery Association.
By 2012 revenue had grown to 39 billion Taiwan dollars, driven by bakeries like SunnyHills, which ships pineapple cakes to buyers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
“We hoped that banana cake could be the next pineapple cake, but that hasn’t happened,” said Chuang Lao-da, a director at the Council of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Agency.
Taiwan’s surplus bananas have also been turned into chips, puddings and a domestically consumed liquor.
But so far, no hit. Wu Pao-chun, a baker famous for winning international competitions like France’s Coupe Louis Lesaffre, created his own version of banana bread as a tribute to farmers.
Unlike the hearty American version, which is made with mashed bananas, Mr. Wu’s recipe features slices of fruit. Though many of Mr. Wu’s baked goods are sold online, his banana bread cannot be shipped because the fruit will lose its texture and flavor. It is available only at his Kaohsiung bakery, where about 30 small loaves are baked each day and sold for 80 Taiwan dollars, about $2.70 each.
“People in Asian countries aren’t used to baked goods made with bananas. They have to become accustomed to the flavor, which we hope to do by gradually promoting our banana bread,” he said.
Mr. Chao thinks researchers could extract tryptophan, an amino acid, from surplus bananas for use as an antidepressant. Peels may be a source of antioxidants and fiber can be harvested from stems and turned into textiles.
The American corn industry may be a better model for Taiwan’s banana farmers than pineapple cakes.
Most corn is turned into ethanol, animal feed or high-fructose corn syrup, but it can also be used in the manufacturing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and textiles.
“We’re looking at products like nutritional powder made from processed bananas, which is becoming more popular in Japan as a health and weight-loss aid,” said Mr. Chuang, the government agriculture official.
Lu Ming, a farmer, has given up waiting for the banana’s ascendence. In 1967, Mr. Lu decided to switch from farming rice to bananas. For two decades Mr. Lu, 76, cultivated his banana trees in the Qishan district, rising at 5 a.m. and working until sunset. He earned enough money to hire workers who helped harvest the fruit and package it for shipment.
Farmers could not compete with lower labor costs in the Philippines, however, and exports of Taiwan bananas began to plunge. According to the Council of Agriculture in Taiwan, banana exports to Japan, a major market, plummeted to 9,161 tons in 2012 from 42,600 tons in 1967.
By the early 1980s, Mr. Lu could no longer afford laborers, and he and his wife began selling candy from sidewalk stalls to make ends meet. Now Mr. Lu, who still farms and works odd jobs, says there are years when his banana harvest earns less than 100,000 Taiwan dollars — far below the average annual income in Taiwan of 452,400 Taiwan dollars, about $15,200.
Businesses have sprung up around the memories of the boom times. Once a warehouse for bananas before they were loaded onto ships destined for Japan, the Banana Pier in Kaohsiung is now a seaside entertainment complex. Banana New Paradise in Taichung appeals to nostalgic diners by combining a restaurant with an indoor re-creation of a 1960s Taiwan village.
The Qishan-based rock group Youthbanana organizes tours and working holidays at nearby farms, including the fields belonging to Mr. Lu.
He says he never wanted to stop cultivating bananas, even as it became less profitable.
“When I was younger, we’d roast bananas like yams, feed the peels to pigs and use the leaves to steam buns or fold them into toy boats for our children,” he said. “It wasn’t just about growing and selling. It’s a culture that I want to survive.”
Sean Marc Lee for The International Herald Tribune
台灣香蕉研究所希望使香蕉成為一種奢侈品。該研究所希望消 費者將北蕉——台灣最常種植的華蕉系品種——當做一種珍奇果品，從而願意為此支付較高價錢。研究所所長趙治平表示，「我們的目標是使台灣香蕉成為品牌，吸 引那些願意為味道更好、種植方法更安全的水果支付高價的消費者。」
但迄今為止，還沒有出現熱門產品。因贏得法國樂斯福杯麵包比賽(Coupe Louis Lesaffre)等國際競賽而聞名的烘焙師吳寶春研發了自己的香蕉麵包，以此向農民致敬。