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Equifruit has big plans

By
Tim Linden

With a bark greater than its bite, Canada’s leading Fairtrade-certified banana supplier Equifruit has big plans to bring those elements into sync as it eyes expansion throughout Canada and into the United States.

The company was founded in 2006 by a mother-daughter team with a vision to improve the lot of South and Central American banana growers by representing only Fairtrade-certified banana production in Canada. In 2013, current CEO Jennie Coleman purchased the company and has continued to advance that goal. Kim Chackal came aboard as director of sales and marketing in 2014 and recently told The Produce News that sales have increased over tenfold since her arrival.

Presently, Equifruit concentrates the sales of their bananas to its growing core of retailers in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, but Chackal said expansion throughout Canada is imminent and sales in the U.S. market are on the horizon.

“We are the Fairtrade banana market leader in Canada,” she said, noting the category only accounts for about 1 percent of sales.

But Chackal sees that as giving the firm “tons of opportunity to grow.”

Within the past year, Equifruit has rebranded its effort and launched an ambitious marketing campaign, utilizing social media, and the stickers and bands on the bananas to engage the consumers, often in a humorous manner.  For example, it’s website screams that the Equifruit banana is “The only banana sharks eat”. The fine print informs those who engage, “There’s a whole week dedicated to watching sharks eat stuff. But a fruit dedicated to making sure farmers are paid fairly for their work? We’d be lucky to get an hour. Available year round – this is the only banana you should buy.”

In a far-ranging interview with Chackal, that website statement proved to be representative of Equifruit’s philosophy and game plan. Only the uninformed is unaware that the fair-trade movement is designed to increase the f.o.b. price paid to growers, especially those in developing countries, and even add a little extra for the development of social programs for their communities. It is only fair is the argument.

Chackal said while this message has been a tougher sell in the entrenched retail banana supply chain, it resonates well with the consumer and grower.  Conventional wisdom says that bananas are a loss leader at the supermarket used to entice consumers into the store to buy the rest of the product in the produce department at presumably more accurate price points. The Equifruit executive said retail prices for bananas have not been adjusted for decades with 69 cents a pound (in Canada) being the typical price for conventional fruit and 99 cents per pound for organic bananas.

While retailers believe they need to stick with the traditional philosophy, Chackal said consumers are not wedded to that idea. Equifruit has made inroads into the Canadian retail sector with its higher priced bananas and participating retailers have not experienced a drop off in sales.

“We believe most people will pay more if they know why bananas are so cheap,” she said. “If they know banana growers are being exploited, they will pay fair trade prices.”

Chackal said Equifruit has proved that proposition with the addition of Longo’s to its customer base. Longo’s has 36 markets in the Toronto, Ontario marketing region. Initially, the chain switched to Equifruit’s organic Fairtrade Canada bananas in all its store. After trialing conventional Fairtrade bananas in six of its stores, it announced in May of this year that moving forward all its bananas – conventional and organic – will be Fairtrade-certified. Chackal noted that the fair trade organization used by Equifruit and its customers is Fairtrade Canada. When the company expands into the United States, Fairtrade America will be the certifier. While she applauds all fair-trade certification efforts, she said this particular organization concentrates its work on product grown in developing countries, which matches Equifruit’s goals.

Chackal reported that during the past six months, Longo’s has had an increase in banana sales. They are typically selling their Fairtrade bananas at a 30 cent per pound price premium over traditional levels.

While Chackal says Equifruit’s banana sales in the past two years have grown at a level exceeding expectation, she believes the Fairtrade banana movement in Canada is at the tipping point. She relayed that five major retailers dominate the Canadian market and Equifruit believes it is on the verge of announcing a deal with one of them. 

She further stated that in the United Kingdom, sales of Fairtrade-certified bananas seemingly ballooned overnight when one of the major retailers adopted the program. Chackal said the socially conscious bananas now garner a 30 percent market share in that region. She opined that once a major retailer breeches the barrier, others follow suit.

Chackal reiterates that the old line thinking that low-cost bananas are a customer driver is no longer true…especially once the customers know the reason the price can be so low.

That brings her back to Equifruit’s irreverent marketing campaign. The company utilizes a plethora of QR codes to engage consumers, especially the Millennials and GenZers that have grown up with the technology. (Their social media sports bold hashtags such as #farmersgottagetpaid and #bananabadasses. She said these messages resonate with consumers and have helped Equifruit create a stir in the marketplace beyond its sales reach. “Retailers in Canada know about Equifruit,” she said, adding that consumers also are beginning to recognize the brand and have proven they care about what farmers get paid, and are willing to pay extra.

Equifruit has calculated that the average consumer will pay about $10 more annually once the switch to Fairtrade bananas takes place. “That’s only about $7 U.S,” she calculated.

As retailers and consumers switch, she said Equifruit will have no issues finding fruit. The company currently works with banana growers in Peru and Ecuador and Chackal said many more will sign up if the sales are there. In fact, she said there are currently more bananas certified Fairtrade than are being sold as such.

The company’s immediate goal is to grow its volume significantly to achieve a 16 percent market share. She said at that level, Equifruit will be a major countrywide player in Canada and can move on to greatly impact banana sales in the rest of North America…and more importantly, positively impact the plight of banana growers.

 

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