Battling Tradition in Saving Ecology – Dr. Harry Rajamannan

Written by: Joel B. Escovilla
Photographed by:
Raymond Britanico

If one method proves to be effective in improving banana production, boosting workers income and helping the environment all at the same time, wouldn’t everybody be already jumping on the bandwagon?

In theory, it makes perfect sense.  But in reality, as one agricultural company found out, it’s not that easy.

Agro-K Philippines Corp., a pioneer in foliar nutrition and soil conditioning, has been operating for five years but has still barely scratched the surface of its potential reach in the region, which has around 80,00-100,000 hectares planted to export bananas.

Inventor and scientist, Dr. Harry Ambrose Rajamannan, Agro-K president, cited two reason the expansion pace is slower here than they would have hoped.

One is tradition: “Nobody wants to leave their comfort zone, employees working here don’t want to take risk to save the environment or make more money,” he said.

“Second reason: we are a small company.  The chemical companies are multi-billion dollar companies.  They can promote and advertise of give junket trips to their plants and other fringe benefits [to banana executives].  How many times you’ve been to Germany, especially on a pre-paid occasion?”

The company has presence in North and South America, Korea, Japan, Australia and other parts of the Asia Pacific Region.  It also has branches in Panama and Costa Rica, which also have large plantations devoted to bananas.


Grown Free Program

Here in the region, the company has a 20-hectare farm in Barangay Lasang, Bunawan District–about an hour away from Davao City’s urban center–which has become a model farm for its “Grown Free Program.”  The program, which is a direct result of seven years of research, aims to fertilize bananas without the application of synthetic fertilizers on the ground and chemicals on the leaves to control sigatoka (which latch on tot the leaves) and nematodes (worms that feed on the roots of the plant).

The bad news, he said, is sigatoka is gaining momentum.  About a decade ago, banana exporters used to spray twice a week, now its’ down to once a week.  The cost of applying the pesticides to control sigatoka is going up and the chemicals are stressing the plant causing a dip in production.

If one is outside looking in, it’s difficult to imagine why banana exporters make a big deal out of sigatoka damaging the banana leaves but the reason in simple: buyers abroad require that the plant still has five leaves when the bunches are harvested.  This program, meanwhile, can guarantee 10-12 leaves during harvest season.

“The technology has existed for around 20-25 years, it’s called induced resistance.  That means vaccinating the plant against a specific disease.  When you apply cholera vaccine or small pox vaccine or polio vaccine, you don’t question it but the body is now pushed to develop resistance tot he type of disease,” he explains.

This technology involves the application of foliar products like Vigo Cal Phos, Super Fertikin, NIR Booster, Symbex 4x and Spikes, a product that feeds potassium during the early stages of the banana plant.  Potassium is the most important nutrient to the banana plant since it is the catalyst to photosynthesis, respiration and regulation of water content on the leaves.

Spikes can also be directly injected into the mother plant after harvest.  The whole process just takes less than a minute and can be applied by one person.

As a result of its Grown Free Program, the model farm boasts of 14 hands in its bunches, which is far above the industry average of about 8-9 hands.  The owner of the model farm is so impressed that he’s willing to convert another 100 hectares under the chemical-free program.


Scale is relative

The Davao Region is one of the top exporters of “Class A” banana in the country, representing nearly 70% of the total exports registered at the Port of Davao.  The industry is worth about P32-35 billion each year and employing nearly half a million direct and indirect workers.  Japan is still the top importer of Philippine bananas, which comprises about 65% of the total box shipments of the industry.  Each box contains 13.5 kilos.

Aside from Japan, the region is also shipping out to Australia, Hong Kong, China and the Middle East.

With just a little over 5,000 hectares, the company’s reach in the region is dwarfed by its bigger farms in the United States which number in millions of acres, but cornering just half of the total banana plantations in Davao alone will still yield top dollars.

“IF we can corner 50% of the market, that’s about $35-40 million dollars and that’s nothing to sneeze at,” he said.

Presently, Agro-K is selling to Japanese-subsidiary Sumifru Philippines and Lapanday Corp., owned by the family of former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo, but the company is looking to double the number of hectares under its Grown Free Program by 2012 by using the experience for the two exporters as a launch pad to convince other banana companies to jump on board.

In the case of Sumifru, it already converted 20% of its farms to the Grown Free Program.

By going 100% chemical-free, the banana exporter can save on labor and operational expenses: “First, banana companies use plane to spray fungicide.  We apply every 10 months.  In some places, we need more labor, some places less labor.  Ultimately, in cost analysis, the owner saves a lot of money while his income increases by 20-25%,” he said.

“But I’m not satisfied with that, if I have to have my Grown Free Program for six months with nothing else applied and you give us full permission to do everything we have to do…we can double the production easily,” Rajamannan added.

If one method proves to be effective in improving banana production, boosting workers income and helping the environment all at the same time, wouldn’t everybody be already jumping on the bandwagon?