Sensitive souls on board

How Hapag-Lloyd transports bananas to Europe

Every year, Hapag-Lloyd transports around 260,000 tonnes of bananas – that’s 25,000 containers’ worth (TEU). They are the most important fruit in international retail. Although they have been cultivated for over 4,000 years, they became major exports for many tropical and subtropical countries only around 120 years ago. But before Hapag-Lloyd delivers the bananas to ports after some days at sea, they already have quite a journey behind them.

They’re harvested when the fruit is still green and hard. The greatest care must be taken since bananas are very sensitive to even the slightest pressure. A harvester cuts the banana plant down with a machete, while a second carries the banana stem, which weighs between 30 and 50 kilos, to a ropeway. At the packing station, the individual hands of bananas are cut off the stem, treated with disinfectant and fungicide, sorted, labelled and packed into boxes. A visual check of the bananas also takes place: damaged fruit, or bananas that are unsuitable for export are rejected. It is important that no yellow (i.e. ripe) bananas are packed. Due to the fact that they naturally emit ethylene, they would make all the other green bananas ripen prematurely during transport.

Now the boxes are loaded into the Hapag-Lloyd reefers. During transport, they must be kept at a constant storage temperature of 13.5°C. This controlled temperature puts the bananas into a kind of ‘hibernation’, preventing premature ripening. An incorrect temperature or fluctuations in temperature may damage the goods and make the bananas unsuitable for sale.

From here, the bananas now go straight to the ships. After being loaded onto the ship, the reefer containers are connected to the ship’s power supply and checked twice a day by the crew for the entire length of the voyage. For journeys of over 21 days, it may also be necessary to check the atmosphere in the reefer as well as the temperature. The controlled atmosphere results in the bananas remaining in an even deeper ‘sleep’, thus extending their ‘life expectancy’. 

At their destination, the bananas are ripened carefully over a period of four to eight days in special ripening chambers. There, the temperature is gradually increased to 18°C, until they have reached the right degree of ripeness for sale. In this process, highly diluted ethene (or ethylene) is added to the bananas to ripen them and aid the formation of sugars. Temperature fluctuations have to also be avoided at this point, otherwise the individual bananas may ripen too quickly and burst. Once the bananas have reached the correct degree of ripeness, they are dispatched for retail. Retailers prefer bananas that are already yellow but with green tips. The bananas then continue to ripen in the shop.

Today, the leading exporters of bananas are Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama and the Philippines. Although India has the world’s highest production volume – around 25 million tonnes, or about 28% of global production – it can only export a very small proportion of its bananas as a result of its infrastructure.

The biggest importers are the US, Japan and the EU. Within the EU, Germany is the biggest sales market with a per capita consumption of around 10 kilos of bananas per year. Most of these have seen the inside of a Hapag-Lloyd reefer container on their journey here.

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