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Uniban CEO says banana industry resisting financial crisis

by Tad Thompson | March 04, 2009
MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- "Bananas, we think, are a primary food in all of our markets," said Luis Arango, president of Uniban, a grower-owned cooperative, which is among Colombia's larger banana producer-exporters.

Thus, Mr. Arango expects that in a difficult world economy, banana sales "will be affected less than other kinds of goods and products."

He expects that North America and Europe will continue to buy the same volume and continue to pay about the same prices as in recent times. "So we hope that this financial situation in the world is not really going to affect our production and marketing, as it has with every other industry."

Uniban owns Turbana Corp., which markets its fruit, is based in Miami and is headed by Chief Executive Officer Juan David Alarcon.

The Produce News met recently with Mr. Arango in his office at Uniban headquarters, here.

Mr. Arango said that Uniban is "doing well" in the categories of quality, logistics and service to its customers. "The fact that our shareholders are also growers and supply fruit for the company has everyone going in the same direction," he said. "It cuts costs and boosts quality, also. I think we are competitive with quality, service and reliability."

He said that last year for Turbana "was a very good one. Maybe it was their best in the last 10 years, with very good return in sales. With several very important new clients, we are happy with Turbana. Especially in the last year."

Turbana's move in 2008 from Bridgeport, CT, to receiving fruit in the port of Philadelphia "was a very good move. It not only cut costs, but we will have more capacity in time" to expand volume. He credited the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority for investing in the Turbana facility with new projects, "which have been very good for us."

Uniban and Turbana have placed a special emphasis on producing and marketing Fairtrade bananas. "This is very important, and it is growing," Mr. Arango said. "It is very important for certain growers more than for the company. It is a market trend that is growing very fast. It is very strong in the European market especially."

He added that demand for Fairtrade bananas is also moving ahead in the United States, although "Europe is strong and is good for certain growers. The U.S. consumer is understanding the concept better. They are not only understanding, but also driven by this kind of thinking."

Asked what message he would like to share with the North American produce trade, Mr. Arango replied, "The businessmen in the [United] States - the people involved in produce marketing - need to come to Colombia and see what the real situation is. I know we have serious problems with a negative, illegal business, and problems with security, but that is not enough to stop the efforts of good people and the workers here in Colombia. Come and see with your own eyes how the situation really is."

Of Colombia's banana supply situation, he said it was "short" in mid- February, "which is normal for this season. In the first three months of the year, everyone is short. Last year, production was so good that maybe that's why we're shorter than normal."

Mr. Arango added that, with short supplies, "prices are good."

In 2008, Uniban exported 43 million boxes of bananas, plantains and exotic bananas. That should about equal 2009 volume for the firm.