To most people, bananas are bananas-all seven or so billion pounds of them imported into the US in any given year. But look a little closer, and you'll find there's a lot more to a banana than its pulp and easy-to-peel skin. Just ask the folks at Oké USA.
Launched by Red Tomato, one of Oxfam America's partners, in collaboration with two other organizations, Oké USA is a new, Massachusetts-based tropical fruit importer with a simple mission: To improve the lives of poor banana farmers and workers by making sure they get a fair price for their fruit.
"The banana industry is a pretty brutal industry," said Jonathan Rosenthal, Oké USA's chief executive officer. "In Ecuador, a typical banana worker earns a couple of dollars a day, and if you get sick or someone in your family gets sick, you're in trouble. If people don't have their basic needs met, it's hard to envision a better future."
But hope for that future is what Oké USA wants to help banana workers build, and fair trade is the engine that will drive it.
"Fair trade is a whole economic model based on direct trade, fair price, dignity, and collaboration," said Rosenthal. "With fair trade, small farmers are getting a higher price and they're getting it directly."
Completing the circle
In a way, the birth of Oké USA completes the circle for Red Tomato, a non-profit marketing organization that helps small farmers in the northeast and minority farmers in the southeast gain brand loyalty and better prices for their produce through large supermarket chains. Its business model is based on principals that include fair prices for farmers and a commitment to ecological farming.
Michael Rozyne is the founder of Red Tomato. With Rosenthal and Rink Dickinson, he was also a founder of Equal Exchange, which pioneered the fair trade coffee industry in the US. Now, carrying the spirit of those two enterprises to a new level, Red Tomato and Equal Exchange have joined forces with AgroFair, a European-based fair trade company jointly owned by growers and NGOs, to start Oké USA.
"We aim to build a fair trade business that changes the terms of trade in bananas just as we did in coffee-challenging the cut-throat race to the bottom of the big banana companies," Rosenthal told supporters in an e-mail announcing the new venture.
At the head of that race are a handful of giant importers, some of whom own their own ships and banana plantations and who are striving to increase their profits by cutting production costs wherever they can. For banana workers and small growers, those cuts translate into shrinking wages and dangerous working conditions.
"Traditionally, workers get very low wages and are exposed to awful chemicals and have health problems," said Shayna Harris, an Oxfam America coffee organizer. "The banana industry is fraught with human rights abuses."
Big exports, low wages
In Ecuador, the largest banana exporter in the world, the government has set the legal minimum price for bananas at $3.35 for a 40-pound box, said Jordan Bar Am, Oké USA's operations manager. But in reality, he added, some farmers get as little as 80 cents. By contrast, bananas sold by small-scale farmers on the fair trade market command $7.75 for the same 40-pound box.
"That's the price that's needed to cover the cost of production and allow farmers to invest in the futures of their businesses and communities, and to provide adequate health care and send their kids to schools," said Bar Am.
Oké USA is now forging relationships with small-scale banana farmers, such as those in Ecuador's El Guabo cooperative, to help them get their products directly to the American market. Besides higher prices, farmers also receive a fair trade premium that helps them strengthen their communities by investing in things like education, clean water, and housing.
"Oké USA is a little guy with a big mission going up against a big marketplace," said Jaeda Harmon, a program officer for Oxfam's US regional office. "Its hope is that by working with small farmers and non-governmental organizations, and promoting consumer awareness, they'll sell a quality product that will give the farmers a chance."
Oxfam America has helped the whole process along by providing a grant that laid the groundwork for Oké USA's launch, as well as giving Red Tomato a two-year general support grant that included exploration of the joint venture with AgroFair.
Now, the hard work has really started for Oké USA.
The company received its first shipment of 100,000 fair trade certified bananas-about 38,000 pounds-on August 17 in Boston. After parking them at a ripening facility for four days, Oké USA shipped the bananas throughout New England to about 70 different locations including co-op supermarkets, natural food stores, and college campuses. Since then, eight more shipments have reached Boston's shores and found their way into the bellies of Americans who, on average, each eat 33 pounds of bananas a year.
Regardless of how fast people consume them, the fruit is perishable-and that's just one of the mammoth challenges confronting Oké USA in this venture. Bananas are not like coffee: They can't sit on the shelf for weeks.
"With bananas, I'm bringing in 38,000 pounds and they can go bad in less than a week, so I've got to move them all the time," said Bar Am. "The perishability factor is huge."
Besides that, Oké USA is going head to head with the biggest banana companies in the country, and it doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on marketing. Educating consumers about the story behind fair trade bananas will be key-particularly as the retail prices for the fruit range from 69 cents to 99 cents a pound.
But once consumers are sold on the concept behind fair trade bananas, they might convince their local supermarkets to buy into the idea, too.
"Supermarkets are incredibly sensitive to consumer demand," said Bar Am. "If they find out it's popular, and there's a hook, they'll get behind it."
To help spread the word, Oké USA and Red Tomato sponsored a three-farmer tour of New England October 22 -28. Among the farmers were Sylvia Arevalo, a banana grower in Ecuador. Sylvia is a founding member of El Guabo cooperative, a pioneer in fair trade for producers. Sylvia raises both organic and conventional bananas, for which she receives a fair price that helps support her family and community.
The tour also featured Shirley Sherrod, Georgia director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, representing black family farmers in the southeastern US, and several New England fruit and vegetable growers. All spoke about their struggles to maintain family farming in a global economy. A commitment to ecological production methods, fair prices, and top quality produce are the common ground that connects not only Red Tomato and Oké USA, but also these farmers and others like them who depend on fair trade for their future.