KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent –Chief Executive Officer of Winfresh Bernard Cornibert told I-Witness News on Friday that his Nov. 8 letter to WINFARM about the poor quality of the nation’s bananas was not the first.
“I can show you emails suggesting to them why don’t you just suspend the shipment but they (WINFARM) want to continue.
“But the only reason they want to continue is because they’re not bearing the cost. If they were bearing the cost they would have stopped it. It is plain silly; it doesn’t make economic sense,” he told I-Witness News in an interview.
He, however, said that the letter was a suggestion rather than a demand that this country suspend banana exports to the United Kingdom until fruit quality improves.
Cornibert, in the letter, addressed to Henry Keizer, general manager of WINFARM, said “I write to confirm our proposal that WINFARM temporarily suspends the delivery of bananas to Winfresh effective Load Week 46, while it implements corrective actions aimed [at] resolving the ongoing quality problems.”
The letter was a follow-up to a discussion last week “on the serious and extensive quality problems affecting bananas supplied by WINFARM over the past several weeks”.
The bananas executive,in the letter, detailed the impact of the poor quality bananas on Winfresh’s business.
He said that marketing has been “severely hampered by very severe quality problems since exports resumed earlier this year.
“Despite numerous reports on the situation and communication to WINFARM describing the serious nature of the problem and the enormous losses resulting from it, the situation continued to deteriorate to the point where it is now virtually impossible to sell the banana,” he wrote.
He further stated in the letter that “Winfresh will require that WINFARM demonstrate that the bananas meet market requirements, particularly in respect of product quality, before the resumption of exports.”
“And I am saying this is not the first time we are writing that kind of letter,” Cornibert noted.
“There must be a better way to assist your farmers in St. Vincent. It is about finding an efficient way to handle the situation and not saying to farmer, ‘we will buy the bananas’, knowing that it is not good, knowing that we are going to throw it away … to me is absolute madness. It is totally inefficient,” Cornibert emphasised.
The executive said that he had a discussion with Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves on Thursday and they “agreed on what we can do temporarily and review the situation in a couple weeks”.
He, however, said that he and Gonsalves did not identify a date for a review of the situation.
“What we did agree in that conversation is that the government will … try and resolve the problem as quickly as possible,” he explained.
“In the short term, we (Winfresh) are going to do what we said we will do but in the longer term, we can’t continue like this. We can’t continue indefinitely to buy a product and throw it away,” Cornibert said.
“We don’t have to tell you that. This is just common sense. It is not good for the banana industry, it is not good for Winfresh, it is not good for the government, it is not good for anybody,” he added.
“You cannot produce something that you cannot sell, throw away and break even. You can’t do it,” Conribert emphasised.
He further explained that the problem has existed for “months”.
“From the time they started, they have had the black sigatoka problem. It is not a new thing.”
This country in June recommenced exporting bananas to the U.K. after Hurricane Tomas destroy 98 per cent of plants in October 2011.
And as trees began fruiting again, black sigatoka was allowed to run amok as agriculture officials failed to spray against the disease.
“Controlling black sigatoka is extremely expensive. And the reason why it is not being controlled properly is because of the cost involved in controlling it,” Cornibert said, but not with any special reference to St. Vincent.
“We have to come to the reality of the situation. This is like a hellhole. It is like pouring money into a hole that has no bottom,” he said of the impact of poor-quality Vincentian bananas.
Ask how WINFARM has responded to his communications, Cornibert said, “I cannot say there has been a response because I have not seen it in terms of improvement in the quality. If anything, it is deteriorating.”
Cornibert further told I-Witness News that poor quality fruit from this country was causing other bananas in the shipment to the U.K to ripen.
“In fact, this is one of the problems we have,” he said, but added that the disease was beginning to get “out of control in St. Lucia”.
Cornibert said that because of the poor quality, WINFARM fruits “a large percentage” of WINFARM bananas cannot be sold after they arrive in the U.K. “You either have to dump it or sell it at ridiculously low prices.
“The prices that we are selling the bananas at in the UK does not even cover the cost that we are paying for the bananas in St. Vincent.
“And on top of that, we have to pay for freight, we have to pay for transportation in the U.K., we have to pay for ripening. If you cannot even cover the cost of the bananas, … does it make any economic sense?’” Cornibert said.
Vincentians were made aware of the gravity of the situation affecting the nation’s banana industry yesterday when Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and Elson Crick, communication consultant in the office of the Prime Minister said separately on radio that banana exports from the country were “suspended”.
Gonsalves said shortly after that that was not the case. “… when I heard about this, I called Bernie Cornibert and find out what is this story about. He says well, ‘people completely misinterpret an earlier communication’,” according to Gonsalves.
“But we have to lift our quality and on an on-going basis, we will review this as the weeks go on to see how we are getting on with the quality…
“I just want to put people’s mind at rest, just calm everybody. … I have given you the truth and there it is as always,” Gonsalves said.