WINFRESH: Friend or Foe?

From all indications it appears that Winfresh launching of its new brand of water, H2O, was a success. However, what was disturbing is the fact that some of those who gave the product their blessings make it seem like they were totally unaware that Winfresh has had bottled water (People’s Choice) and fruit juices on the local market for some time now. Furthermore, our investigation revealed that Winfresh may have had to destroy a large quantity of its People’s Choice bottled water because of poor quality and the fruit juices had to be taken off the supermarket shelves because consumers were very reluctant to purchase them. We sincerely hope that Winfresh has learnt its lesson and will do better this time. Nevertheless, a point of greater concern is the fact that Winfresh has taken the decision to sell a product that is synonymous with life yet has shown gross disregard for life throughout most of its dealings in the past years. For those who have not followed the banana story, the shareholders of the Windward Islands Banana Development and Exporting Company Limited (WIBDECO) saw it fit in 2009 to change the name of the company to Winfresh to seemingly broaden its scope beyond bananas. However, the senior management team remained more or less the same and so has the business approach. The small farmers in St Lucia have suffered tremendously from the decisions made by WIBDECO\Winfresh and its ability to influence other stakeholders. Most recently WIBDECO\Winfresh has been able to convince stakeholders that the banana industry must be streamlined and that the supposedly last sum of European funding for the banana industry under the “Banana Adjustment Measure (BAM)” should be spent on what it deems a core group of farmers. But this is not the first time that WIBDECO\Winfresh has spearheaded this approach. In a previous attempt, which had a measure of success, there seemed to have been a consensus among the stakeholders to withhold all forms of assistance to banana farmers. In so doing, many of those farmers deemed unfit were indeed flushed-out and while some were able to find employment elsewhere, others and their dependents are still suffering, having lost their main source of income. To make matters worse for those small farmers who stayed the course, the company has now reduced considerably on the paid services it provided to banana farmers and has handed them down to an entity which is very limited institutionally and intellectually. One service WIBDECO\Winfresh has continued to provide is the sourcing of materials for the treatment of leafspot disease. However, over the years, there has always been a shortage of materials during the rainy season when conditions are most favourable for disease upsurge. What is suspicious about the timing of these shortages is that it coincides with the period when the demand for banana on the UK markets is generally on the decline and while WIBDECO\ Winfresh is mandated to purchase marketable bananas produced by local farmers this might well be a stratagem to reduce on the volume of marketable fruit. Conveniently, some of the reasons for these shortages are the lack of funds, the shortage of fungicide or oil on the supply side and the late ordering by the farmer organizations. The sad reality, however, is that some farmers are unable to sell bananas at their peak production levels; of note, the poor production planning has also contributed to this situation. WIBDECO\Winfresh keeps sending mixed signals to farmers since during the first part of the year it accepts almost all the bananas the farmers can produce and in the latter part of the year, the company finds the most obscure reasons to reject the farmers’ bananas. Over the years WIBDECO\Winfresh’s critics in the banana industry have been silenced by creating some technicalities upon which it suspends or terminates trade with the organization its critics represent. This is currently the situation with the Tropical Quality Fruit Company (TQFC) which has affected the livelihood of farmers trading with the company. The reality is that the same accusations that are lodged against the TQFC are being ignored by WIBDECO\Winfresh when it involves the banana company (NFTO) that WIDECO\Winfresh has supported both institutionally and technically in the last few years. This is outright favoritism at the detriment of banana farmers. WIBDECO\ Winfresh has also explored trading bananas on the regional market. This market was an outlet for local farmer to dispose of their second grade bananas but by introducing bananas of a higher quality (those with minimal or no scars and bruises) and at a relatively low price, the company slowly forced some small entrepreneurs out of the regional banana business and made it impossible for farmers to dispose of that second grade fruit for some meaningful income. Local entrepreneurs reported that regional buyers who once accepted the second grade bananas were no longer inclined to purchase them sighting that WIBDECO\ Winfresh was offering fruit of better quality and more competitive prices. In reality, WIBDECO\Winfresh can afford to take a loss on the regional trade knowing that it stands to gain by selling the local fruit on the regional market and then purchasing cheaper bananas elsewhere which it can now supply to international businesses at a greater profit margin. There is so much more that can be said about the negative impact of WIBDECO\Winfresh on the small farmers of St Lucia and just as the majority of farmers were excited when WIBDECO was formed only to later shed feelings of betrayal, we are concerned that those who gave their blessing to Winfresh and its new products will inevitably come to the same realization. —SIPÒ. Advocacy and Support Group

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