Mumbai: India is the world’s largest banana producer with a 23% share or 10.4 million tonnes of the world production of 48.9 million tonnes. But, India is absent in the world banana trade which is estimated at 14 million tonnes worth $ 4.7 billion a year.
Now, container shipping firms operating from and into India have come to the aid of local banana growers to promote Indian bananas in the world market. The world’s largest container shipping firm Maersk Line has started trial shipments, carrying bananas in refrigerated or controlled atmosphere forty-foot equivalent units (feu’s) from India to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“We are shipping 5-6 feu’s of bananas in a week from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And, this could be a start of much bigger things to come,” says Nigel Goode, director, sales, south asia at Maersk Line. It will soon expand operations in other banana growing states including Maharashtra, the country’s
largest banana producing state.
A feu is double the size of a twenty-foot equivalent unit (teu), which is the standard size of a container and is a common measure of capacity in the container business. A feu can typically load 25 metric tonnes of cargo.
Refrigerated container services are used for shipping perishable goods such as fruits and vegetables. The world’s third biggest container shipping firm CMA-CGM said that it “will look at” facilitating export of bananas from India to meet the demands of the trade.
“We are ready to support the trade in exporting bananas from India,” said an executive at the Indian unit of the French container shipping line who did not want to be named. Export of Indian bananas has so far been affected by lack of market awareness, poor post-harvest management and inadequacy of supply chain management including higher air cargo tariffs compared with ocean freight rates.
About six months ago, Maersk embarked on a project with exporters in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu that covered areas such as research on banana production, harvesting, warehousing and packaging. Apart from logistics support, it also gave training to exporters in cold-chain management. The firm also provided marketing support in foreign countries. According to UNCTAD, hardly one-fifth of the total banana production is internationally traded.
“This clearly indicates how big the opportunity is and we are bullish about it,” said Goode whose firm operates the world’s largest fleet of refrigerated containers. If things sail smoothly, India could well be looking at replicating the success story on export of grapes.
From scratch about five years ago, India exported 2,500 feu’s of grapes worth 40 million euros in 2006-07 to various global markets, mainly northern Europe. Maersk carried a significant portion of these grapes grown in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, Goode said.
The Indian market for refrigerated container cargo is estimated at 65,000 -70,000 feu’s a year and is growing at 10 -12% a year on an average. Being a premium service, the refrigerated container service forms a significant portion of the revenues of container shipping firms.
“It typically costs 1.5 to 1.7 times more to ship a refrigerated container loaded with cargo across oceans than a normal container,” said Anindya Chakraborty, trade manager, line commercial-reefers at the Indian unit of Maersk Line. The benefits of moving bananas in refrigerated containers is that it can accomodate smaller orders compared with bulk shipments. Besides, reduced handling of bananas leads to less likelihood of bananas getting damaged.
To start with, India has picked UAE and Saudi Arabia for banana exports without hurting the shelf-life of the fruit.
“Indian bananas have a shelf-life of three weeks from the time the fruit is harvested. You cannot play with the shelf life of a product. The export market must be closer to the producing country,” said Chakraborty.
It takes three days to ship bananas from India’s biggest container port, Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai to UAE and 6 -7 days to Saudi Arabia. It costs about $ 2,500 to move a refrigerated feu container loaded with bananas from J N Port to UAE, he added. Shipping lines are also helping banana exporters to gain market access in other countries as well.