I loved visiting Dole today to witness the supply chain of bananas! Experiencing a different process that is so important to Latin America and especially Costa Rica was extremely interesting and engaging. The company that we visited, Dole, produces about 30 million cartons of bananas in Costa Rica a year, out of the 128 million produced in the country. They are located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica since a hot, humid, and wet climate is needed to grow fruit. We learned that the rainfall can occasionally be detrimental for the fruits, but banana plants need an enormous amount of water, so drainage systems have been developed throughout the plantation. Bananas have a rich history filled with power struggle and corruption, but the Costa Rican government invited this profitable business into the country in 1956.
After touring both the coffee and banana supply chains, I have recognized key similarities and differences between the two processes. The coffee supply chain is extremely complex as it has about a ten-step process to bring the product to market. Many companies can participate in the coffee production throughout parts of the supply chain, including after the fruit is picked and the beans are dried. There can be simply coffee farmers who grow and pick the berries, coffee roasters, and coffee sellers who brew and prepare the drink. Coffee can vary due to the quality of the beans and the way they are roasted allows for many different flavors. Bananas are a monoculture, genetic clones of each other, so every banana looks the same and tastes identical to another. In bananas, the supply chain is simpler with fewer steps. The same company plants, picks, prepares, and packages and ships the fruit. I have noticed that both processes are very labor intensive. Every banana plant must be visited three times by a worker before they cut it down and bring it in for packaging. The coffee process requires each worker to sort through the trees a few times each and pick all of the ripe cherries individually.
Dole’s supply chain follows Costa Rica’s sustainability initiatives as they conserve and recycle materials throughout the production process. Banana plants require a plastic covering so that they can control the temperature, prevent bug contamination, and avoid bruising. They have looked into alternative materials, but plastic has the best results. Therefore, Dole recycles 99% of the plastic used so that they reduce waste and pollution to the environment. Also, when Dole washes the fruits and prepares for packaging, all of the water is filtered and recycled to use again on the plantation site. Dole has an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification which guarantees that the company is preventing pests and reusing materials to protect the environment. The sustainable working conditions are similar to the coffee industry as plantation employees are from Nicaragua and they are paid relatively low wages. In coffee, the workers are paid per cajuela, about $2 each, that they pick per day. In bananas, the workers are paid an average salary per day that is about $28. They are provided with housing and water in each industry, but in coffee, Nicaraguan workers are also offered childcare and medical care.
Some of the threats to the banana industry include a flooding of water and spoilage of the fruits. The intense rains of over 200 inches a year create a possibility of flooding and destroying plants, but advanced drainage systems have been developed to lessen this possibility. Furthermore, if the bananas are not picked and packaged between 11 and 14 weeks of growth, they will not be properly ripe for the customer. Colorful ties indicate how long the banana plant has been growing so a worker can judge when the fruit is ready to be cut down. If I were a worker, I would choose to work on a banana plantation. Getting paid based the volume picked is unpredictable and physically draining. Additionally, if I were working in the fields, the typical banana worker starts at 5am and is finished by 11am. This provides an opportunity to have a second job or to spend time with family. If I were a packaging worker, I would be among other women as I noticed the majority of these employees were female. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn about the supply chain of two major industries in Costa Rica and observe the behind the scenes processes of production!