A pandemic inspired pivot

Photo by Beatrice Sawe/MEDA

Tanzanian agri-food firm gets increased business from move into bananas

The business challenges caused by pandemic lockdowns have been more than enough to cause people to go bananas.

In Hadija Jabiri’s case, a focus on the sweet yellow fruit has provided a viable alternative to closing a Tanzanian business that had previously specialized in exporting vegetables and fruits to European Union countries.

Jabiri is founder and managing director of GBRI business solutions, a six-year-old Tanzanian firm that specializes in growing, processing, and exporting vegetables and fruits including French beans, peas (both snow peas and sugar snap), baby corn and avocados.

GBRI staff pack bananas for distribution | Photo by Beatrice Sawe/MEDA

Prior to the pandemic, the firm, which involves small-scale farmers in its production activities, exported produce to Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, the future looked uncertain for a firm that exported 100 percent of its production.

Partial and total lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, people’s movements and the movement of goods and services, bans on international flights to and from countries affected by COVID-19, and closing of customs/borders were all done in order to stop disease spread. But these measures crippled GBRI, as some of its customers stopped doing business for a while.

Initially, the company wasn’t sure what to do, and wondered whether investments that it had made, and that MEDA had helped them with, would be stranded.

MEDA provided a matching grant to GBRI to help the company purchase and set up a bigger cold room facility for produce. GBRI also purchased a refrigerated truck as part of that effort.

Pre-pandemic, GBRI staff prepared peas and French beans for export to the EU and the United Kingdom. | Photo by Beatrice Sawe/MEDA

MEDA worked with GBRI through its Strengthening Small Business Value Chains (SSBVC) project in Tanzania. (That project, funded by Global Affairs Canada and donations from MEDA supporters, ended June 30, 2021.)

Rather than close its business completely, GBRI decided to change its marketing strategy. Last November, it began serving local markets, targeting the banana value chain and engaging banana farmers. They use 1,500 crates purchased through MEDA’s SSBVC project that were originally used for vegetables to transport bananas.

Bananas are cut off of trees into “fingers”, smaller bunches that are easier to transport than traditional methods. The crates reduce product rejection, improve traceability and allow farmers to stop using bags to harvest and store fresh bananas. 

GBRI began going to the Mbeya region in the southwest of Tanzania. They targeted a handful of villages in the region to purchase raw bananas and bring them to their cold room facility in Iringa, a town in central Tanzania, Jabiri said. Bananas ripen at that facility and are graded.

Being able to control temperature and relative humidity means that there is almost no waste and longer shelf life, compared to considerable waste under traditional storage and transportation methods.

Once the bananas have ripened, GBRI distributes them to vendors.

At the time of this writing, GBRI’s customers include 377 fruits and vegetable vendors, 93 percent of them women. GBRI also works with 107 small-scale banana farmers who supply the firm with raw bananas.

The new business model has been successful, providing farmers with a 10 percent higher price. The company has a 60 percent market share in Iringa and 90 percent share in the town of Ilula.

Hadija Jabiri’s firm has grown since moving into domestic banana distribution. | Photo by Beatrice Sawe/MEDA

This arrangement has more benefits to the farmers than just having an assured market for their crop, Jabiri said. “Now they don’t need to go to the market early in the morning and incur transportation costs; we deliver these bananas right at the point of sale.”

The company is supplying 90 tons of bananas per month to market.

When GBRI started in 2015, it had only four staff, one of them female. They now have 11 women among their 24 permanent staff. 

GBRI’s future plans include scaling its business model to several major cities: Dar es Salaam, and Dodoma. They also want to increase the crops they accept from farmers to include tomatoes, potatoes, onion, pineapples and mangoes.

With files from Beatrice Sawe/MEDA

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