Episode 2

How a little banana saved our farms

The Sweeter Banana co-operative was saved from catastrophe by an innovative lunchbox banana that charmed the nation.

 

Despite the cyclones and the geographic isolation, Sweeter Banana has not only pioneered the lunchbox banana market, it has remained profitable by sticking together and thinking differently. Carnarvon is home to a group of banana growers whose remarkable co-operation has been forged out of a history of natural disasters and market challenges. The remote WA coast may be the last place you’d imagine finding a group of successful family farmers who changed the way we think about buying bananas. But, despite the unpredictable weather, isolated location and their many differences, the members of Sweeter Banana not only pioneered the lunchbox banana market, it triumphed. Renowned agriculture journalist Pete Lewis talks to Doriana Mangili, Business Manager of the Sweeter Banana Co-operative.

For this fascinating podcast series, you will hear from real farmers who are successfully using co-operative farming business models. Through their stories and real life experiences (warts and all), you will learn how this positive farming model can change lives.

Listen to Episode 2

Episode 2 transcript

Melina Morrison:

Hi, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of Business Council Cooperatives and Mutuals.  Welcome to our Co-operative Farming podcast series. Co-operative Farming is designed to support farmers, fishers and foresters through the formation of new farming cooperatives, and to foster the resilience and growth of developing farming cooperatives.

Today, Doriana Mangili, Business Manager of the Sweeter Banana Co-Operative in Carnarvon. This is a story that demonstrates that ingenuity will get you a long way, even in the toughest of conditions and competitive environments, if you believe in what you do and you stick together.

“This is a warts and all story of turning negatives into winnings points of difference. But for me the really powerful part of this story is the human spirit in tough times coming together to help each other.

Here’s our host, renowned agricultural journalist, Peter Lewis. Enjoy!

Pete Lewis:

Tonight though, we are joined by a farmer who’s about as passionate about bananas and adding value to primary production as anyone can be Doriana Mangili, is the Sweeter Banana business manager. Right up there-

Doriana Mangili:

Hi.

Pete Lewis:

… in Carnarvon in Western Australia. She’s got a great story to tell about their innovative co-operative. The Sweeter Banana Co-operative is based in Carnarvon. It’s about halfway up the WA coastline. It’s on the remote part of that coastline, famous for its fresh produce and great weather. And despite its geographic isolation, and occasionally, uncooperative weather, which we’ll talk about in a moment, this group of family farm has managed to change the way we think about buying bananas. Not only pioneering the Lunchbox banana, but remaining profitable by sticking together and thinking differently. We’re going to hear all about it. Doriana, buonasera [good evening], come sta [how are you?], And welcome to Co-operative Conversations.

Doriana Mangili:

Thank you great to be here.

Pete Lewis:

The Sweeter Banana Co-op was formed in 1993 to develop a brand that would be easily recognizable by consumers tell us what your co-op does, and why did it start.

Doriana Mangili:

Well, the Sweet Banana Co-op was really formed to create a brand and market our beautiful little sweeter Carnarvon bananas. And we pack, we market and we grow bananas here in Carnarvon and distribute them across Western Australia.

Pete Lewis:

Tell us about how it is distinctive. What is it about the banana? Is it a genetically modified banana? Or is it a particular genius type? How does it differ from the traditional I guess the most popular bananas in the country that most people would see on a day to day basis, the Cavendish?

Doriana Mangili:

It’s a good question. It’s exactly the same banana. It’s still a Cavendish. The difference with our bananas is really our climate. So we’re subtropical, bananas love tropical weather, constant heat, humidity. Here in Carnarvon we’re on the edge of the desert. We’re on the coast, we have very low rainfall, we have colder nights in winter, we have warmer nights, and warmer days in summer so it can be quite hot, and then it can be quite cold. So our climate is pretty unfriendly for bananas. However, that means they grow very slowly. So a tropical banana will take seven to nine months to grow, ours will take about 14 to 18. We end up with a much smaller banana, but it’s very sweet. It’s very creamy, doesn’t have starchy sort of taste. It’s got a lovely banana flavor.

Doriana Mangili:

And because of our isolation, we’re literally in the middle of the desert with 500kms to the next town to the south. There’s not a lot of other industry around us. We’re very protected from insects, pests and disease. So we don’t need to use any sprays so we don’t use pesticides, insecticides or fungicides. So it’s a really nice little product. It’s very different and yeah, that’s what’s so special, and they taste amazing.

Pete Lewis:

You talk about the geography in the place. The Gascoyne River is a mighty river when it’s in flood, but it doesn’t flood well and often, does it?

Doriana Mangili:

No, about once a year the river runs, maybe once every two years. We’re happy if we get a river flow every two years, we have enough irrigation water to carry us through for the next two years. But anyone driving across our 12 meter high bridge will wonder why it’s there when they’re looking at a riverbed of sand. But when it flows, it really does flow so it can get right up to underneath that bridge.

Pete Lewis:

Now one of the themes that’s really emerged from this series over the past few episodes is that more often than not co-ops grow out of crisis. Pressure seems to make diamonds for a lot of farmers in Australia. How is adversity helped create the impetus for and in turn strengthen your co-op?

Doriana Mangili:

Well, absolutely, I think they say necessity is the mother of all invention and getting farmers to work together, it’s not a natural thing. But when disaster strikes, and you can’t see another way out, people become very innovative and look at new ways of different things. So, back in the 1990s, when the industry was doing very badly, the competition from the larger tropical banana coming into Western Australia, supermarkets were starting to buy that in preference to our smaller ones. Because we grow them close together, we have skin markings on the skin from the leaves, that was impacting consumers and retail buyers choices. And so basically, we weren’t able to compete with that larger banana. And our growers were basically losing money so they were just growing bananas and selling them for less than the cost of production. And as we all know, in horticulture, you’re a price taker to some extent, you don’t get to add on your margin, you get whatever the markets determines your product is worth, and supply and demand. And there was very, very little demand for our bananas.

Doriana Mangili:

So it was pretty much the industry would have probably been on its knees and just about ended when the growers got together.

Pete Lewis:

And in a sense, you were ahead of the curve in terms of trying to explain to consumers that although they do come in all types of shapes and sizes, and occasionally take a bit of a hiding on the outside is absolutely nothing wrong with the fruit inside. And it’s a tough thing to sell, but you made that your strength, you differentiated yourself with the smaller product and with one that might have been what people regard as absolutely perfect.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, that’s right. And in the initial days when the growers got together, they decided that the best course of action was to try and grow bigger bananas. So at that point, a third of the bunch was being chopped off in the paddy to try and make those bananas fill out and grow bigger. Another third of the bunch was being discarded in the packing shed because it still wasn’t up to standard. And then the final third, which is the bit that got packed, was sold at below the cost of production. So they really had to sit down and say, “Well, we can’t compete with them on that level with this larger banana. Why don’t we promote what’s different? What makes our banana so special.” And that’s how the Lunchbox banana came about. That it was actually small enough to fit in a child’s lunch box and make that the selling point rather than trying to compete with something that we really couldn’t compete with, that wasn’t viable.

Pete Lewis:

Look in industry terms bananas are the most popular fruit on the Australian market. The business is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $600 million a year 400,000 tons in a pretty good year. And 94% as you said, bananas are grown in the state of Queensland. You’ve been able to create with that small niche market, however, a very sustainable business for your co-op.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, we’ve invested a lot in the marketing. Branding obviously was really important. Improving the quality and getting the customer perceptions of quality and addressing those things, educating consumers. So we do a lot of face to face stuff at places like the roll show in-store taste demonstrations, lots of marketing really getting that message across, and it’s been quite successful.

Doriana Mangili:

So we do have now a very loyal following of people that only buy our bananas and people that I meet time again, time again in stores who say, “Oh, I met you at the show and we tried your banana for the first time and now it’s the only one I buy.”

Doriana Mangili:

So, yeah, it’s been a lot of investment but obviously West Australia is a very parochial as well. So being able to let people know that this is a Western Australian banana helps people to make that choice. So it’s been a big journey but it’s a lot of investment into marketing and as you said, when we started doing that, there wasn’t a lot of branding there wasn’t a lot of marketing and fruit and vegetables it was very much a commodity market. And we saw from the very outset that we needed to make ourselves different to be out of that commodity space and into a space where people were searching out our product.

Pete Lewis:

Was there a fair old shake out of growers from back 30 years ago when you really hit the crunch. Are they the same people in your industry? Have you had a flash of new growers and new blood into the business over that time or there’s been a lot of people who just hung in?

Doriana Mangili:

We have a mixture. So we have … in our co-operative we actually manage two farms of our founding members who have retired from the industry. They didn’t want to keep growing, but they wanted to keep the bananas in the co-operative. So we run those farms ourselves. We have a number of new entrants to the industry. And I was one of them back in 2005. And I guess some, for me, as somebody who hadn’t come from the banana industry, being able to go into a co-operative meant that I could go into a whole new industry farming, and be supported by an entity that was going to help me grow. And obviously in a co-operative, it’s in everybody’s interest that everybody does well. So there’s a lot of help.

Doriana Mangili:

So if you just walked into town and bought a tomato farm, pretty much nobody’s going to come and help you tell you what the best thing is, because they’re going to think that perhaps you’re competing with them. Whereas in a co-operative, everyone wants you to do a good job because it’s all about strengthening the co-op. So, we have new entrants, we’ve got some founding members, and we’ve got some people that retired.

Doriana Mangili:

Obviously, not everybody is in the co-operative. So when we started the co-operative, everyone came in, 50 members. And as the co-op progressed, and it became more serious, he ended up with a quite a few diverging views about how things should happen. And some people just left. They didn’t want to co-operate, they thought they had a better way of doing things. But I guess the success of that was still that it did bring the industry together. And that all of those growers that have since left the co-operative, still package their bananas into our bag, label it as Lunchbox. And so even though they’re not in the Sweeter Banana Co-operative brand, they’re all doing the same things. So whilst they’re not members of the co-operative, they’re still part of the industry, and they’re still benefiting from everything that we do in terms of marketing.

Doriana Mangili:

So I guess if you think the purpose of the co-operative was to save the banana industry in Carnarvon, those members that aren’t even in it are still benefiting from that.

Pete Lewis:

And I guess we don’t need to tell you anything about just how rugged and robust an individual farmers can be. Even when they are part of a bigger group, they have extremely strong opinions about things and don’t mind expressing them.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, look, we do laugh because there were fights and there were literally punch ups, which you know, happen from time to time when people get very passionate about things. But that good, robust discussion also helps to … People are passionate about their industry. So, yeah, it’s a lot calmer now, now that we have very committed members who share the same vision and are committed to the same direction. Things were a lot easier within the co-operative, but certainly getting everybody involved in the early days, there’s always going to be conflicts. So sometimes, I think you can’t expect everybody to be a member of the co-op. Some people are not going to be in there, but it doesn’t mean it won’t work. You’re better working with people that are committed and are looking at the same end results as all the other fellow members.

Doriana Mangili:

And then you can actually take risks then because people have the same end goals and have the same vision and are supportive of the process.

Pete Lewis:

And did the founding members, did they quickly latch on to the Sweeter Banana brand and logo idea did they get unanimity over that one?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, they did. And actually, the original brand was developed by one of our growers and which is one of the other great things about a co-operative is that you bring lots of people into the business that maybe wouldn’t necessarily be involved. If you look at farmers generally you will all assume a farmer is a male when we know that’s not true, family farms have a husband and a wife. And what happened with the co-operative is everybody came on board. So, you had children, you had partners wives that also got involved in bringing their skill sets to the co-op. And yes, so the brand was developed by one of our growers, Maxine, and everybody loved it. And we revamp it, and we update it and we’re still modifying it, because now we have to look at it on tiny little phone.

Doriana Mangili:

Whereas in the old days, it was only on the side of the packing shed and on our package. But everyone still recognizes it, and we’re actually just in the process of getting big signs for all our farms across the river, because it was pretty proud to be a member and show that they’re a member of the co-operative.

Pete Lewis:

And in terms of it’s a product primarily, I guess, aimed at the domestic WA market, but did some of you bananas find their way over east and how do banana growers in other parts of Australia respond to this product differentiation because, as you said, for just all intents and purposes a banana is a banana everywhere else.

Doriana Mangili:

Well, it’s quite interesting. We don’t send bananas to the east coast. When we started doing the Lunchbox banana, the perception in the industry was that bananas in a bag were the ones that were the odd ones. You go into the supermarket and all the manky odd rotten bananas get put in a bag with $1 sticker on it. So that was the perception of bananas in a package at that time.

Doriana Mangili:

The industry is now completely changed. And if you go into retail now you will see Queensland bananas in packages called Lunchbox bananas. You will see bananas with bands around them Little ‘nanas. So I think we have in a way led the way in proving to retailers that people will buy a smaller banana, and will buy a packaged banana.

Doriana Mangili:

We developed a product called Smoothies in 2010, which was bananas that were perfect for smoothies. These were bananas we would have thrown out and that product is still going strong today. So I think we led the way and we changed the market. It may have happened anyway, but certainly when I look in the shops I think we led that and yeah we’re still trying to lead. But the Queens have got lots of people, the growers in Queensland, they’re all lovely people and they’re all very supportive of what we’re all doing to promote the banana industry.

Pete Lewis:

These days, they like dip one of the ends in red wax, aren’t they? Is there an agronomic or a shelf life reason for that or is just marks it out as being slightly different in the market?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, I think that probably there may be some benefit and obviously, in protecting the banana a little bit. But the main idea of that one was that was a marketing push by the Sciaccas that have the Eco bananas there. So that’s just another way of that group of growers differentiating how they grow bananas and promoting that as a different thing. So it’s good, I think it’s good. It gives consumers choice. And the age that we live in now people want to know a lot more about their food, they want to know how it’s grown, where it came from all of that. And it’s really good. The banana industry is really in the forefront of doing that.

Pete Lewis:

Well, let’s drill down a little into the Sweeter Banana Co-operative. Initially, it was a simple co-operative, but its structure seems to have moved on to one that more closely aligns benefits received by members to the profits and cost that this brings to the business. What is the structure of your co-operative?

Doriana Mangili:

Okay. Obviously all our members of growers, they have to be a grower to be a member. And in the early days which is branding, was about, you can use this brand. But what we found was that everyone has different standards when they’re packing in their package shed. So what I might say is a first grade, somebody else might say is a second. So even though we had one brand, we didn’t have a consistent product. So back in 2002, we opened the banana packing shed. And all of our members needed to have their bananas packed through the packing shed. And what that enables us to do is not just have a brand, but to have consistency of product quality, quality standards, and from that point, we can also do the marketing.

Doriana Mangili:

So we know that we can go to the market with an offer of how many bananas we have, get a price and we basically patch order, everything is patched to its retail market before it leaves the packing shed. And we make the decisions based on the volumes we have on what price we will take and where that product is going to go. And then the returns are distributed to members in line with how many cartons are first grade or second grade they’ve sent in.

Doriana Mangili:

So we take away a lot of the pain from the growers in terms of, that they just focus on the growing side, they harvest the big bunches, and then we take care of it from that point on. So we do all the grading, we have all the quality assurances and all the certifications that you need to service the major retailers. And we also are able to service major retailers because we can have a consistent volume, which as individual small family-run farms in our region, they’re very small, they wouldn’t be able to do that. So, that’s been another benefit.

Doriana Mangili:

And then from that, we also then do all of the marketing. So it’s pretty much integrated, sort of through the supply chain. And we do the value adding as well and that’s something else that we’re looking to expand into. Because we just want to make sure that every single banana we grow is sold and doesn’t end up back in the paddy as fertilizer because there’s so much waste in food production. And being a co-op we can actually spend time doing that.

Pete Lewis:

And remind us again, how many members you started with and how many you have today.

Doriana Mangili:

Well, we have About 50 members at the very beginning, so everybody on the river that was a banana grower came in, we now have 18. But we have about 60% of the production. So we still have the majority of the production, and everyone benefits from us being here because we’re still promoting those Carnarvon bananas even though it’s in a different package. If the supermarket’s can’t get ours, they’ll get someone else’s from Carnarvon, and we’re still creating that market.

Pete Lewis:

And as you’ve indicated, the flow on effect of a successful co-operative is even people who aren’t members of it benefit from it and indeed, you lift the overall standard of the product that you’re producing. And I guess that spills over into labor issues and a whole range of other things as well. You’re an industry leader in your part of the world.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, that’s right. R&D and wherever we go, then the rest of the industry tends to follow. And that’s still a good thing. So I guess, sometimes it’s a bit annoying when we think we’re spending all this money doing marketing. But in other ways[inaudible 00:22:14] the purpose of the co-operative was to save the banana industry, and that’s what it does. And we know that without us being here, and without us doing that consolidation of more than 50% of the volume, it wouldn’t be working as it is now.

Pete Lewis:

Now, you alluded earlier to some lively exchanges when they were differences of opinion. On a serious level, how do you keep everybody on the same page and heading in the same direction? Has that really called on some extra skills to be developed and how does that work in practice?

Doriana Mangili:

It’s skills and it’s also systems, so making sure you have the right systems in place. So communication is obviously is important having regular get togethers. But also transparency in the way you do things with your accounting. We have an intranet site. So our growers can log in and see what we sold, who we sold it to, what price we had, each week, they can see how much of that we packed for them, how many first, how many seconds, all those things. They can see the retail market, what’s going on there. So it’s a very, very … and all the associated costs, how much it’s costing them for their carton, their freight, all of those things, is very, very, very transparent. So that’s one thing, you have to have trust and to have that you’ve got to have transparency.

Doriana Mangili:

And the other thing we do is we have obviously regular meetings every couple of months, have a barbecue at one of the farms, have a walk around, look at what’s going on, talk about what’s new, and what’s going on in the industry. And I guess the other key thing is it’s because the goal was co-operative. So they make the decisions on the long term vision, so we have a strategic plan, which is a five-year rolling plan. But every year we get together, and we get about … 80% of our growers come for a day, a planning day. Sometimes it’s days, sometimes half a day, put a nice lunch. And we go through the strategic plan, we look at what we’ve achieved, we look at what we’re planning to do in the next four years, is that still relevant, do we need to reset targets.

Doriana Mangili:

And everybody has a say, and everybody buys into that. And then it’s pretty much then left to the management to go away and implement that. So the board, managers and management regularly report. But I think two things, one is transparency, that direction, but the other thing is not having the member growers too involved in the day to day running, leaving that to the people that you’ve employed as well, and trusting us with that.

Doriana Mangili:

So it works pretty well. We still have robust discussions, but we’ve had very, very consistent memberships for the last eight years. We’ve had new people coming on or we’ve had a couple that have retired or left town, but certainly there hasn’t been any walkout saying that that’s it, I’m not packing my bananas here anymore. So it’s a good measure of success, I think.

Pete Lewis:

And what was your story? What skill set did you bring when you arrived? It wasn’t directly in necessary in this line of work, was it?

Doriana Mangili:

No, I was a business analyst. I was working in the United Kingdom. Actually, I worked for National Mutual in Australia, and then I went to work for them in the United Kingdom. And I worked in financial services doing business analysis and implementing IT systems and training and change management. So I had completely, a skill set that I never thought that I would use when I bought a banana farm. But I went to my first strategic planning meeting and came out with a million ideas of what we should be doing, and got involved. I think that’s probably one of the best things about moving from somewhere like the United Kingdom back to Australia and then moving to a regional area and thinking, “Oh, I’m never going to use my skills again.” And then finding that in farming, there’s just such a need. It’s a business like any other business. And those business skills are really important. And whilst we have a lot of growers who are really, really experienced at growing, they didn’t have some of the experiences and knowledge and skills that I had.

Doriana Mangili:

So again, because we’re a co-operative, I got my niche to get involved, and that wouldn’t happen if we were all working on our own individual farms.

Pete Lewis:

Well, as you said, there are few places as wonderful to farm and frankly live as the Gascoyne region and Carnarvon. But every once in a while, the weather gods turn very sharply on that part of Australia, don’t they? And you have dramatic cyclones, droughts and all those kinds of challenges, which really, I guess, to upset that whole apple cart of strategies four years or otherwise.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, it’s part and parcel of farming, unfortunately in Australia, and I think it’s probably going to become an even greater issue. Certainly, you can’t do much about the weather, all you can do is plan for it. So as a co-op, we have got strategies in place to make sure that we have income there for those times, like happened in 2015. We had 100% wipeout in a cyclone. But we managed to continue and keep employed our key staff, keep all our overheads covered, and then we’re able to once the production came back on 15 months later, get back into … pickup up where we left off, as you say. Those issues are … all farmers face those issues across Australia, but at least working together, you can start to put some of those business strategies in place, contingency plans, savings accounts and all those things to make sure that you’re in a good position when things go right, which they eventually do.

Pete Lewis:

Well, I think one of the strategies you employ will certainly pick up this in other parts of Australia. Tell us a little bit more about the mutual risk pool and ensures your farmers in the case of a crop failure.

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, so this is a Carnarvon banana industry farm. So all growers in Carnarvon are able to participate in that. It’s a self insurance fund that was started in the 1960s. Actually, Tom Day who was one of our previous Chairs and one of our founding members, it was his father, who was a banana grower at the time. That went to the government after two years in a row of terrible cyclones, which wiped out the industry. And said, “Why don’t we have a fund we put money in. And then when there’s a disaster, there’s some money there to help people get back on their feet.” And the government thought it was a good idea. So initially, it was co-funded, so much contribution from industry and government until about the 1980s. And then the matched contributions stopped and then the fund went into industry hands, and it still continues today.

Doriana Mangili:

So it’s run by the banana growing industry in Carnarvon. It’s optional to join, but everybody does. And as happened in 2015, and has just happened a few weeks ago, if you have more than 15% of damage across your crop, due to a weather event, there’s a compensation fund and you get paid based on what your plantings are, what your average production has been for the past few years. And in effect, compensated a small amount, not as much as you would have if you’d grown that fruit and packed it, but it’s enough to get you back on your feet, get you replanted, and keep you going a little bit until the cops come on.

Doriana Mangili:

I think it’s amazing, and it’s one of a kind. I don’t think there are any other funds in the world that are totally run by farmers. And it means we’re not putting our hand out to government for support when things happen because we’re self insured.

Pete Lewis:

Well, as I say, I think there’ll be a lot of other people who hear and see this, who will be very intrigued. And you’ll probably be fending off all sorts of inquiries over the next weeks and months to explain how it works and how they can fund it. Now, obviously, there are a whole lot of other challenges for making the banana business work, from market situations and pests and disease and so forth. What are your farmers up against? What are the significant challenges in Gascoyne?

Doriana Mangili:

Oh, well, it’s I think in horticulture, it’s always the fact that your cost to production there’s no relation to the price that you get. And it’s a highly competitive commodity market and you can market as much as you want. But if your competitors product or even another product, let’s say not a banana, let’s say, mandarins are very cheap and they down to $1, a bag, which is less than what they would cost to produce, then we become relatively expensive. And consumers choose to buy that product because it’s cheaper. And I think that’s a real challenge for all of farming, that the perception in the marketplace about the value of horticultural projects does not relate back to the growing costs. So that’s a big concern. And that can only be overcome by education, more sessions like this, where people can tune in and listen to what farmers have to say.

Doriana Mangili:

So that’s probably one of our biggest issues. The cost of water, and climate change and more weather events are obviously a big concern.

Pete Lewis:

And look you’re in a delightful part of the world, but it is not exactly on the bathing track. How do you go identifying, sourcing labor and keeping it when you need it?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, it’s always been pretty good for us, we’re a good place to work because we’re undercover. So people don’t have to work in the hot sun in a field when you’re working for the Sweeter Banana Co-operative. We have a nice packing shed with fans and keep it cool, but we have about … 50% of our workforce is local. And the other 50% tends to be backpackers, the visa holders that come and work and travel in Australia. And they’ve been fantastic. So we’ve had so many that want to stay and we’ve been able to sponsor a couple. But yeah, it’s always difficult getting Australians interested to move to remote areas and do farming. So we’re a little bit concerned as to what might happen in the next few months without those travelers around and obviously farming is also seasonal.

Doriana Mangili:

So we have the challenges that we’ll have 50 hours work a week in summer, but we might only have 25 in winter because of the seasonal nature. And that sort of working holiday like visa, people that they fit very well into that because they’re happy to come for a few months and then travel on and have a holiday in Coral Bay and then continue to broom and head somewhere else.

Pete Lewis:

Well, maybe it’s one of the things that we’ve noticed over the past few months. And we’ve mentioned it in just about every episode that as a commodity sector, agriculture is probably performed as well as any sector in the Australian economy and has stepped up and provided the food that was required, despite occasionally people going into supermarkets and stripping everything. Would it be nice to think that not only consumers but policymakers and government respond to that, and pick up issues like working visas and other ways of I guess, acknowledging the role farmers and farming and food production have made over the past six months?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, it was quite nice to feel really special during COVID and for people from the government to be ringing us and asking us what business continuity plans did we have. What do we need to do to keep production going, and being very keen to ensure that the food chain still worked. It was really lovely to sit back, not just for us, but also people like truck drivers who are so important in Australia, that if we didn’t have truck drivers, and it’s probably the most underrated job, but we would have no food. We literally would not function. Australia starts with that truck driver.

Doriana Mangili:

So it was very gratifying, I think, to feel that government was taking notice. And what we have found is, especially WA, the West Australian government set up a reference group and invited us lots of different sectors from horticulture and other primary production areas. And those meetings were every week, they’re now every month. But the conversation is still going and we’re having this ongoing discussion about what the issues are.

Doriana Mangili:

So I think was a bit of a wake up call for everybody. And it’s been really nice to feel that the industry is valued and we do play a really important role. And of course, we were an industry that kept going, kept working, kept employing people and kept creating economic benefit as well as feeding people, so it’s nice to be recognized.

Pete Lewis:

The Sweeter Bananas were among a group of West Australian producers who are able to leverage the State Department of primary industries and regional developments Buy West Eat Best brand to market to your significant market West Australians. How important is to have that behind you to further differentiate your product at retail?

Doriana Mangili:

The Buy West Eat Best brand it’s just another form of collaboration. So we have been members since the founding, I just can think of no better way of promoting your brand than to group together with a whole other bunch of like-minded people. Whether they make preserves, their beef or seafood. That can all unite under one logo that says this is Western Australians and as you say, Western Australia is very parochial. We’re a little bit different. Sure, we’d like to secede sometimes.

Doriana Mangili:

But so people like to know what’s local, and we’ve invested a lot in Buy West Eat Best. We’ve been a co investor in TV ads and totally believe that. Because, again, under a collaborative marketing arrangement like that, every time someone picks up your product, so if we sell two million banana bags a year with that brand on it, every time somebody sees that logo, it’s imprinting in their brain. And if they see it on the lady who does 50 jars of honey a week, they’re still remembering that. So it really, really works.

Doriana Mangili:

And I think there should be more of it and whether local means like WA, or your local farmers market or Australian, it’s really important that we invest in promoting what’s good about that. And if it’s local, generally it’s fresh, and it’s been a really good thing for us and we wholly support it.

Pete Lewis:

It’s giving you the confidence. You talked about investment, it’s giving you the confidence to invest in some new technology in new products and new cold stores. How important was that to put a foundation into what you’re doing and where you’re heading?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, well, the cold chain stuff was really interesting because we’ve always been told that our bananas didn’t last as long as the tropical bananas. And that because they’ve got very thin skins and they do mark very easily, but we were told that they just don’t perform as well. And again, because we are a co-op, we’re able to then look at that as a problem, invest in R&D, and say whether we could fix this. And what we found was with the right processes in place, we could extend our shelf life from one to two days, which is how long it lasts in the consumers fruit bowl to five to six days, which is the same as tropical bananas.

Doriana Mangili:

And so that’s been a really big impact, I think, because people are going to buy your product more if they’ve got confidence that it’s going to last a long time. And they’ll come back and purchase it again. So that’s been a big investment for us. And we were able to, as I said, extend that shelf life which is fantastic.

Pete Lewis:

And was it tough for the co-op to go out and find the finance to do that, to undertake that? Was that big leap of faith for you?

Doriana Mangili:

It was a big decision. But it wasn’t a leap of faith them because once we saw the results, we knew that would help us to sell more products. So, and we utilize the West Australian government, the co-operative loan system, which is a great fund that you borrow the money, it’s at commercial rates. A bank underwrites it, so it’s not easy money, you have to go through the same, same processes that you would to borrow money from anybody. You’ve got to have a business case, you’ve got to be able to repay it, you pay interest and you pay a guarantee fee to the bank, but it allows your capital repayments to be tax deductible.

Doriana Mangili:

So that’s a really good way of co-operatives building capital because you’re not paying tax on the capital repayment and therefore you can grow your asset base and then be able to do the next thing. So we’re really happy with the results of that.

Pete Lewis:

Look, as I said on the outset, we are running a poll again tonight as part of this conversation with Doriana Mangili, and later with our round-table discussion. And the poll question today is for Australian farmers, what do you think is the most appealing aspect of farming in a co-operative structure. And there are a whole range of things that you can tick off from sharing knowledge, the tax benefits, risk management, pooling resources, economies of scale social values, and capital raising. All of which, and Ariana has spoken about in terms of the Sweeter Banana Co-operative. So you click on the poll in the live chat to the right of this stream to select your answers.

Pete Lewis:

Now, Doriana, it’s fair to say that many co-ops succeed or fail because of the sweet equity that’s involved, what social value is created through your co-operative and what about the equality of voice in the collective decision making?

Doriana Mangili:

Well, obviously one member one vote is really important for everybody to have that ownership of what goes on in the co-operative. The strategic planning that we do and get everybody engaged in means that everyone’s got a had input and has ownership of the goals and aims of the co-op. And from the social value Carnarvon … people from Carnarvon, and people that ever lived in Canada and feel a very strong loyalty to the co-operatives. So whenever we do promotion using social media, we’ll get thousands of people commenting and saying, “I used to live in Carnarvon and best place, these are the best bananas, my hometown.” They’re very proud of this product. So even though we’re not processing all the bananas in Carnarvon, that everybody associate the brand was Carnarvon, so it gives people a sense of pride.

Doriana Mangili:

From the local perspective, we’re able to do things like food donations to schools and programs and things like that. We’re always getting asked for … it gives people a point, I guess, to come to and ask for sponsorship, unable to … So industry can get involved in community. And then within our own community, farming can be quite a lonely business, you’re generally stuck on your own farm. You don’t have colleagues, work colleagues like people do in offices. So the co-op gives everybody the opportunity to get together and talk to someone else about the common issues that you have in your business. Whether it’s water, whether it’s a pest or whether it’s the weather or whatever it is. It gives you that sense of community within the community.

Pete Lewis:

And it must give you a big kick when you do go and venture to periodically to Perth for major events and see the Sweeter Banana banner flying higher at that magnificent new stadium of yours?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, it’s pretty nice. We are hosting the grand final obviously, according to our premier.

Pete Lewis:

Now we’re in the homestretch essentially, but we cannot obviously finish our discussion without talking about how the pandemic has affected you or not affected you. How has ’20 … certainly 2020 would not have panned out the way you had planned it this time last year, how has it been? What’s happened, and how’s it affecting what you do?

Doriana Mangili:

Yeah, it’s been a really strange year. So in January when we first became aware of what was going on in China, we did put in some processes to screen travelers and closed our packing shed off to any visitors, stopped having visitors just as a precaution. Thinking that we’re really reacting and being a bit over the top, but as it turns out, that was probably a good move. The shutdown, we went from people literally panic buying bananas. So people were … we’ve discussed they only last for five days, so I don’t know why people will panic buying bananas but people did and we could just couldn’t keep up with. So we ended up with high prices and high volumes. It was complete opposite of what normally happens.

Doriana Mangili:

And then we ended up in April with virtually nobody going out, none of the kids at school and nobody buying bananas. We had to completely rethink how we were doing that. So we started doing more green bananas so that people had limited shopping opportunities. They could buy one green and one ripe because we felt that people weren’t going to the shops as often which was turned out to be correct.

Doriana Mangili:

We had to put a lot of processes in obviously in our packing shed social distancing, split shifts, split breaks, things that were really hard for the staff to deal with because they were … we have lots of shed, morning teas, and it’s a very social place to work. So that made it quite difficult. And we’re still having to do that to protect the business and make sure that we’re not vulnerable if somebody does contract COVID. So I guess it’s been a really strange time.

Doriana Mangili:

And then in May, we had a light season cyclone. They didn’t call it a cyclone, but we had 120 kilometer an hour wind. So, that’s pretty strong. And we lost quite a large percentage of our crop, which was just as things were starting to get back to normal. So, that was our new normal. So look, I think you’ve just made us realize that we have to be … just got to be so responsive and see what’s going on in the market.

Doriana Mangili:

But again, having the co-operative structure around, you’re quite connected, because we are sort of that vertically integrated organization. We’re talking to the markets. We’re talking to retailers, and we’re getting that information. We can make those decisions quite quickly. But yeah, banana bread apparently was the most searched recipe during the-lockdowns, and that’s probably because everybody panic bought too many bananas.

Pete Lewis:

That’s good. Yeah, bananas and toilet paper clearly. Looking back over the journey what do you think is the biggest take home lesson or what’s the best advice you could maybe pass on? to people who are involved in co-ops or are thinking about it?

Doriana Mangili:

Well, I think farming is really tough. It’s an industry where so much is against you. You have the weather, lack of rain, too much rain, there’s pests and disease. There are so many external issues. In some instances, it’s access to markets and retailers. All of those things. So many challenges, certifications that the regulatory framework of farming is getting harder and harder. More and more paperwork, which lots of people go into farming because they didn’t like paperwork are finding that they’re getting more than ever.

Doriana Mangili:

Working together with your fellow growers. People in your industry that are doing the same thing makes so much sense. Because at the end of the day, we’re not competing against each other. The threats are coming from all sorts of other places and working co-operatively allows you to harness all the skills, yes, all the skills, all the benefits of the membership to work together to that common goal, because we all want the same thing. We want to have profitable, sustainable, long term businesses.

Doriana Mangili:

And I think that for me, I wouldn’t be in farming if it wasn’t for the co-operative. I could never have just stepped from what I was doing into a farm the co-operative made it easy to me, and I think we should all be doing a lot more of it and not seeing our neighbors as competitors, that we should be all working together to try and achieve those common goals.

Pete Lewis:

Very good tip. You’re going to be joining us a little bit later to the round-table but for now, grazie mille [thank you very much], Doriana, we really appreciate-

Doriana Mangili:

Thank you.

Pete Lewis:

… your story. It’s a fascinating story, the Lunchbox banana developed up there and successfully marketed throughout Western Australia from Carnarvon. And so we really appreciate your input to that.

Melina Morrison:

I hope you enjoyed this episode. The Sweeter Banana story really demonstrates how a co-operative can unite a community of producers to work together to overcome adversity.

Don’t forget to subscribe now to the cooperative farming podcast series and rate us, and I hope you’re inspired to find out more about the fantastic benefits of cooperative farming, and how to realise the incredible potential for your business.

We have some insightful round table on-demand videos for you at our website, and we talk to the leaders of their respective industries and discover how they have transformed their businesses.

You’ll learn the benefits, tips and techniques of cooperatives as we future proof Aussie farmers.

Join us at coopfarming.coop, and in our next podcast we talk with Natalie Browning, of Co-operative Bulk Handling Group or CBH.

Remember, in a challenging world, we are all “better together”.

I’m Melina Morrison, thanks for listening.

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