How is the coronavirus impacting the production and export of bananas in Costa Rican?
Jorge Sauma: So far the sector has not been badly disrupted. [As of 22 April the country had reported 669 cases of Covid-19 and six deaths]. Banana farms have been operating normally, but with all of the necessary measures in place to protect workers.
During the first two months of this year, Costa Rican banana exports increased by 6 per cent, but we are waiting to have the March figure complete to how coronavirus has affected shipments.
What security measures have companies had to put in place to safeguard workers and prevent the spread of the virus?
JS: The safety and health of workers is a priority for banana companies. Corbana has developed and disseminated comprehensive protocols on social distancing and hygiene, based on the norms and recommendations of the Ministry of Health and other relevant authorities.
These include such measures as regular hand washing; staggered lunch breaks; restrictions on how many workers can travel on each vehicle; disinfection of all personnel and entering farms and packhouses and training for all workers.
What difficulties are you experiencing in terms of logistics? Are the country’s ports still operating normally?
JS: We haven’t experienced any delays so far, but we are having some issues with availability of containers, surcharges implemented by shipping companies, delays at some destination ports and interruptions at border crossings, but by and large we’ve managed to deal with these as and when they arise.
We remain optimistic that the situation will not get worse, but everything will depend on how the disease evolves and the measures markets put in place to prevent its spread.
Has the sector received any help from the government?
JS: The government has implemented a range of measures, such as tax holidays and a moratorium on loan repayments.
The measures also include a three-month moratorium on the payment of VAT, income tax and customs duties for companies, extendable to a fourth month. The Central Bank of Costa Rica carried has also reduced interest rates and made loan conditions more flexible, while the government has approved a new law to make working hours more flexible.
Has there been a notable downturn in orders? If so, in which markets have you noticed the greatest difference? And are you taking steps to reduce your export volume?
JS: According to publications by various media, consumption of vegetables and fruits has exploded as cases of Covid-19 have grown and more people are confined to their homes. There has been an increase in demand bananas, as one of the most widely consumed fruits, but we’ll need more time to see exactly how this translates into higher sales.
It looks as though the current situation will last for at least a few more months. What do you think the long-term impact will be on the Costa Rican banana industry?
JS: As I said, there has been no noticeable impact so far, but we cannot rule out that there will be consequences, although quantifying them is difficult right now. But we must be prepared to look for solutions.
For sure, there will be a contraction in the global economy and its extent will vary from country to country. Bananas are the cheapest fruit in produce aisles and also the one that provides one of the greatest contributions to health as they are a rich source of potassium and vitamins.
A recent study shows that bananas are also a good source of protein and lectin which has virus-fighting powers and can therefore help consumers during the current pandemic.