Marketing Unusual Bananas in Kona
By Ken Love August 2007
Many horticultural publications make reference to thousands of bananas around the world and a few talk about more than 100 in Hawaii. Consumers, especially visitors to the state generally know of only a few, by brands, Chiquita and Dole. Others know of red cooking bananas and / or plantains. After 5 years of weekly farmers markets at the Kona Pacific Farmers Co-op and the Keauhou Kona farmers market, I found that most of the visitors and residents had no idea there were other bananas being grown and that they were anxious to try them.
Two years in the making the "Big Island Bananas" poster published a few months ago has already helped to increase farmer market sales in Kona. When displaying the poster at the KCC market here in Honolulu, sadly people wanted to by the bananas and not my poster. However, there is hope that Honolulu residents will be able to enjoy some of the bananas relished by Kona residents. This in part to our changing demographics and the plethora of new farmers in Kona who are looking at much greater crop diversification than ever before. Seasonal diversification by variety and cultivar as well as species and family has begun to help with small farm sustainability, and the unusual bananas play an important part.
The first step in adding to the mix of diversified AG in Kona was to identify growers willing to share or sell banana cultivars outside of the quarantine areas. In South Kona, this was primarily done thanks to the Philippine community. Many of who routinely grow up to a dozen varieties. Some of our newer farmers had a number of different varieties but in a few cases didnŐt know if they were edible. Generally they knew only apple and regular bananas. Many of the older farms we visited had incredible collections of Hawaiian bananas that they only knew as "cooking kind". Finding these and explaining their value helped to secure juvenile plants which we could use to repopulate Kona's Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden as well as plant a selection at our 12 Trees Project site.
The need for grower education on harvesting, Postharvest handling, variety identification and marketing became apparent. At our Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers - West Hawaii chapter meetings we focused on bananas a few times. Knowing when to harvest a bunch was the first topic addressed. Some of the buyers had been complaining that a few new farmers would cut the bananas many weeks before they should have been.
Traditionally the bunch was cut and tossed into the back of a truck, which caused more bruising than local produce buyers care to show their customers. We suggested that in order to get more for value for their product, they needed to carefully cut the bunch, then cut the hands and box the fruit in the field.
Expanding on the traditional markets for the unusual bananas was done by holding a few meetings with American Culinary Federation, (ACF), chefs and featuring some of the unusual bananas at Big Island culinary events. The chefs who wanted to work with bananas or feature some of them at hotel, would in turn order them from the wholesaler, Adaptations, who we were working with. Value added banana products were developed with the Hawaii Community College -West Hawaii Culinary Arts program. These were tested at the schools public lunches and are currently being sold to raise funds for the schools program. We have also started to accumulate banana recipes for future publication. We are working on cross regional grants for chefs to be able to share experiences with counterparts in the Caribbean who often use bananas in a variety of dishes not commonly found in Hawaii.
Identity of various bananas is no easy task and we used a wide variety of sources, especially the Kepler Rust descriptors. In order to produce the poster we had to narrow down some of the names and decide on how to present some of the differences, especially with red bananas. There were as many as 10 names in various Pilipino dialects for the same bananas. With Hawaiian bananas common names on different islands were, at times, confusing.
Creating signage for growers and groceries to use was the next step. These have been most effective in adding value to what was previously just called a cooking banana.
Hotel chefs have used the signage as well which has led to increased consumption by guests. The signs are routinely used at a South Kona grocery regardless of which grower brings in the fruit to sell. On a number of occasions I've been asked to check the store and make sure they have the right sign for the right banana.
What all of this has done is to increase the 50 cents a pound the grower was getting for "cooking" bananas or unusual sweeter varieties like ice cream, saba, mysore and goldfinger. Hotels will pay up to $2.00 a pound for the more unusual Hawaiian bananas and at the minimum, $1.00 a pound for the others. Some groceries and farm stands have also agreed to pay $1.00 a pound or more depending on rarity. At farmers markets many of the unusual bananas easily sell for 50 cents each. We've encouraged growers to follow
Dr. Kent Flemings cost of production banana spreadsheet available at
The Big Island Banana poster can be seen at