Ghana to Europe: Yes, We Do Have Bananas!

West African country was encouraged to produce fruit, now the EU won't buy it

GHANA is being driven bananas.

In an absurd quirk of international trade and bureaucratic rule-making, the Western countries trying to help this West African state develop new exports are instead putting up barriers to purchasing them.

On the one hand, the European Union and Western donors are pouring money into Ghana to encourage it to diversify away from the cocoa and gold on which its economy depends. The Netherlands is funding Ghana's sole banana export plantation to sow 425 acres of the juicy Cavendish ''Grand Nain'' variety, highly prized by Europe's banana-eaters.

But there's been a slip-up: The EU is making it hard for Ghana to export bananas by requiring it to pay a high price for licenses. As a result, Ghana essentially needs Western aid money to sell its 12,000-tons-a-year production, which is aimed almost exclusively for Europe. The more bananas Ghana sells, the more red ink it piles up.

Under a ''banana protocol'' set up by the EU in 1993, producers from developing countries from former European colonies were assigned new export quotas, giving them special access to the EU market. These beneficiaries were some Latin American and African producers, including Ghana neighbors Ivory Coast and Cameroon. But Ghana was passed over on the grounds that it was too-new a producer, as it only began to grow bananas for export in 1988.

''It's absurd. I'm bringing money to Europe rather than the other way around,'' complained Hubert van den Broek, managing director of the Volta River Estates Ltd, which runs the Ghana banana plantation.

Because of the high costs of licenses, he is left with a mere 430 French francs ($86) at the end of the month. He needs to earn 81,000 francs ($16,200) per shipment to break even.

''Who can produce under these condition? Nobody,'' says Mr. Van den Broek. ''I am producing cheaper and better quality than neighboring countries. But I can't compete. We are only exporting now because the government gives us development money.''

It seems even more ludicrous because everywhere you look in Ghana you see bananas. Ghana has the ideal soil and climate for cultivating bananas - which after citrus is the fruit most traded in the world. The starchy plantain variety that is the staple of Ghana's 15 million people sprouts all over the fertile country - in backyards, by the side of the road, on private terraces. Everywhere women walk with bunches of bananas on their heads. Street venders sell them roasted. Restaurants sell them fried. But it is the sweet dessert type which makes money.

Europe, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world's total yearly consumption of 10 million tons, is the logical target market. ''Maybe Ghana's lobby was not good enough,'' said Volta Estate's director Henri Wientjes. ''All we are asking for is a mere .025 percent of European consumption.''

He hopes eventually to get production up to 18,000 tons a year and acreage up to 750.

Some in Ghana believe his mission is quixotic.

''Yes, the EU is wrong. But the whole of the pineapple industry is open to us, so why this fight over bananas?'' asks Ghanaian financial analyst Ken Ofori-Atta.

Western diplomats in Ghana's capital, Accra, believe that EU will assign a quota over the coming months. But that will last only until the year 2003, when discussions on the next banana protocol reopen the issue.

In the meantime, the 650 plantation workers continue to toil in the hot sun on the banks of the Volta River as though there were a genuine market. Van den Broek tries to convince locals to buy sweet bananas.

And, one presumes, he eats those he can't sell?

''Goodness, no,'' he says. ''''I'm sick of bananas.''

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