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Banana bunkers bloom in Dalian
BY 2015-10-29 07:53:30

Dalian Ruihua Everfresh Trade Co Ltd uses a bomb shelter to store bananas imported from Ecuador. The Dalian-based company handles one in three bananas sold in Northeast China, home to more than 101 million people. [Photo/China Daily]


Cross-continent trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars promises a healthy and fruitful future


Dalian's emergence as China's banana capital shrouds many a fascinating tale.


It is about how technology-shaped globalization could help tackle worsening domestic food safety; rise of food trade with unlikely partners across oceans; livelihood opportunities for hardworking farmers and entrepreneurs in different continents and hemispheres; one-time luxury fruit coming within the reach of the ordinary people; and imaginative commercial use of wartime bunkers.


Such wide-ranging aspects are a result of bananas becoming big-ticket business. Last year, China imported 232,000 tons of bananas from Ecuador alone. If you factor in an average of six bananas per kilogram, that would equal 1.392 billion bananas, often considered one of the most affordable fruits.


In value terms, they cost around $185 million.


Huge spaces and right conditions are necessary to store such enormous quantity of fruit after import, before it could reach marketplaces and consumers. That's where Dalian excels.


Banana entrepreneur Zhang Jingyun, 37, CFO of family-run Dalian Ruihua Everfresh Trade Co Ltd, owes her success to Dalian. She often starts her workday in a bomb shelter, half an hour from the main office of the fruit importer in downtown Dalian. The old cement fortification, built in the 1960s during the Cold War, is now a banana store.


A minute's walk from the entrance into the dim tunnel, more than 200,000 boxes of bananas and other fruits are neatly stacked, with some reaching the arched ceiling. Forklifts bustle between them. Workers in blue uniforms load and unload.


"Winter or summer, the temperature (in Dalian) is always 13 to 14 degrees centigrade, the optimum level for storing bananas. A lot of fruit dealers in Dalian rent (bomb) shelters for storing bananas. They are natural refrigerators," said Zhang.


She studied and worked abroad for eight years before returning to join the family business. Bananas now top Ruihua's agenda because "of all the imported fruits, bananas are the most affordable with an average price of 10 yuan ($1.6) per kilogram", said Zhang.


Ruihua handles one in three bananas sold in the three provinces of Northeast China, home to more than 101 million people. Since its first order from Ecuador-36 containers with 75 tons of bananas-arrived at Dalian Port in October 2011, Ruihua has received a new shipment every week.


In 2014, the company received 1,000 containers from Ecuador, a year-on-year increase of 80 percent. Its target this year is to raise it by another 30 to 50 percent.


Fruit dealers attribute the surge in imported food like bananas to the growing wealth of Chinese people and worsening domestic food safety. In addition, e-commerce has brought foreign products to central and western inland regions, an under-tapped market with great potential.


"When I was a kid, a banana was a luxury for an ordinary family like mine, not to mention an imported banana," said Zhang.


She was born in 1978, when China formally began its reform and opening-up policy.


"It's not far-fetched to say that imported bananas demonstrate the real purchasing power of ordinary Chinese people," she said.


Banana still has an exotic appeal, especially in the more remote parts of China's northeast, where the inhabitants might never have heard of the far-flung Latin American nation that grew it. Packed in a fruit basket, bananas can still brighten special occasions such as Spring Festival, when the area emerges from winter temperatures that can plunge to minus 40 degrees centigrade.


Fifty days before reaching China, the bananas were still green when a worker picked them on a plantation in Guayas, Ecuador. Then they were packed into the container and shipped from Guayaquil Port. After a 40-day journey across the Pacific, they arrived in Dalian.


But it was not like this always, says Mike Fang, who has worked for Maersk Line, the world's biggest shipping company, for 21 years, and has seen up close how China's development has transformed economic patterns.


He joined Maersk in 1994, when China's economy rocketed with double-digit growth as the country became the factory of the world.


"At that time, China imported large amounts of waste paper, plastic and metals to make low-end products for exports, which resulted in a high foreign trade volume, but limited contribution to a high-value economy," he said.


However, over the past decade, the imported items have changed. The demand for fruit, meat, dairy products and wine has increased dramatically, "particularly in the last three to four years", while imports of industrial waste are much less. "Actually, now our ships carry auto parts, instead of waste metals, from Germany to China," said Fang.


To adapt to the trend, Maersk has begun to restructure its China operations.


"Previously, we mostly handled China's exports, but now we have to think about how to carry products to China as soon as possible. For instance, we have put more cold chain containers on the lines between China and Latin America or Oceania for the fruit and fish imports," he said.


Fang believed the increase in imported products pressures Chinese producers to sharpen their competitiveness, which is also the key to the government's goal of upgrading China's economy.


After more than three decades of rapid growth, the world's second-largest economy slowed its pace to 7.4 percent in 2014, a 24-year low, and the figure dropped to 7 percent in the first half of this year.


The government says the economy has reached a "new normal"-a slower but healthy growth. But, many worry that China's "economic miracle" might be over.


Liu Shijin, deputy director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, said the "new normal" means China's economy has shifted gears from high-speed to medium-to-high speed growth.


"Previously, China's economy was driven by investment and industrial development, which relied heavily on labor. But now it is transforming into a consumption-and services-oriented model. The changes will have long-term significance," said Liu.



(Editor:Grace) (From:China Daily)
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