The banana is not a tree but a high herb that can attain up to 15 metres of height.
It is a perennial plant that replaces itself. Bananas do not grow from a seed but from a bulb or rizhome. The time between planting a banana plant and the harvest of the banana bunch goes from 9 to 12 months. The flower appears in the sixth or seventh month. Bananas are available all year long.
Banana production shows a clear dual nature, with smallholders producing alongside big plantations. The production systems are different depending on the producing areas.
Plantations are predominant in Latin America and they require huge investment in infrastructure and technology for transport, irrigation, drainage and packing facilities, allowing later for economies of scale in banana production. These plantations may be up to 5000 has. and they are usually controlled or operated by large transnational corporations.
On the other hand, smallholder production is much less capital intensive and more labour intensive. This system is present mainly in the Caribbean because, due to topographical factors, it is not possible to use the plantation system, leading to lower yields and higher unit costs.
Main differences between banana growing in Caribbean Countries and Latin American countries
Source : CBEA
||Latin American Countries|
|Growing areas hilly or mountainous. Limited land availability
||Large flat plains. Wide land availability |
|Poor soil conditions and low yields (not more than 10 tonnes/acre)
||Rich soil and high yields (18-24 tonnes/acre)|
|Majority are independent, small farmers
||Largely a plantation agriculture, often owned by transnationals and vertically integrated operations
|Higher wages than in Latin America
||Wage rates low, social conditions of workers poor |
|Unit cost of inputs much higher due to smaller volumes and varying soil types
||Lower unit cost of inputs due to high volume. Lower FOB price due to lower market wages, low social benefits and economies of scale|
|Shipping costs generally higher: smaller volumes, more port calls
||Lower shipping costs due to high volumes|
Banana growing is, in general, labour intensive because banana plants require intensive, individual care in order to obtain the required quality fruit: clearing away of jungle growth, propping to counter bending from the weight of the growing fruit and irrigation during the dry season. Banana bunches are covered with polyethylene bags in order to protect them from wind and attacks of insects or birds, as well as to maintain optimum temperatures, creating a micro-climate.
Bananas are very vulnerable to the existence of pests and diseases, such as nematodes or Black and Yellow Sigatoka. In order to fight them it is necessary to use agrochemical components as pesticides and fungicides. On banana diseases see: Ploetz, R.C. 2001. Black Sigatoka of Banana. The Plant Health Instructor.Bananas are harvested green and hard, before they mature. Two types of workers are required to harvest bananas: a "cutter" and a "backer". The cutter cuts down the plant with his machete while the backer waits for the cut stem to settle on a thick cushion on his shoulder. The cutter then chops the stem to enable the daughter plant to take over as the main stalk. The backer carries the fruit and attaches it to a nearby overhead cableway where the stem is transported to the packing shed. It can also be transported in carts. In the packing shed, the bananas are removed by hand by skilled workers and washed. They also go through quality control, before being packed in cardboard boxes.
Bananas are later transported to the ports to be charged in the specialized refrigerated ships, called reefers. They have to be transported at a temperature of 13-14º C (56-58°F) in order to prevent them from ripening and increase their shelf life. Bananas have to be carefully handled when charging and discharging in order to prevent damages.
When they arrive to destination ports they are sent to banana ripening rooms, where the optimum temperature is 15-20°C (59-68°F), before they reach the supermarket shelves. They are normally ripened by using ethylene gas. Humidity, ventilation and temperature conditions are carefully monitored through all the transport process in order to control the cold chain and get the bananas of the required quality. Major advances in post-harvest handling technology have improved control over the cold chain, favouring long distance shipping of highly perishable products, such as bananas.