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Jennie Coleman’s distribution company, Equifruit, is taking on the major players in the banana business to ensure farmers get paid fairly

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Jennie Coleman at the EquiFruit storage facilities in Montreal in July, 2022.Karene-Isabelle Jean-Baptiste/The Globe and Mail

Mikey the Monkey’s face is frozen in serene rictus as he sways gently over the produce department. His job, as an animatronic character at the Farm Boy grocery chain, is to capture the attention of the condo dwellers and crunchy middle-class parents who enter the west Toronto store this Mikey calls home; to inject a bit of calculated whimsy into their shopping experience and, ultimately, to push product. “Look here,” Mikey beckons. “Here’s something you should buy.” Below him are dozens of bunches of Chiquita bananas, 79 cents a pound.

Across the aisle, amid the scrappier fare of the organic kiosk, a different gambit is at play. There, too, sits a pile of bananas, indistinguishable from the Chiquitas next door save for two things: the price, $1.29 a pound, and an inch-wide band that surrounds each bunch. The colours on the band catch your attention first, each a rainbow of Instagram-friendly mint, lavender and cornflower blue. There’s a small Fairtrade logo and some bold, sans-serif type: “The only banana to reverse aging,” reads one. “The only banana to binge-watch,” reads another. Next to each, a stylized illustration of a talking banana connects the random claim to the importance of paying farmers, ending with the imperative, “This is the only banana you should buy.” Beside that is a QR code that, when scanned, redirects to an Instagram account whose recent posts include a still of Charlton Heston as Moses holding tablets altered to read “Thou shall not exploit banana farmers” and “Seriously, it’s really uncool, man.”

It’s a lot of information for a busy shopper to take in as she powers through her grocery list. Most people see the price and walk on by. But some stop. Some read the copy on the band. And some decide to pay a bit more.

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This is the work of Equifruit, a 10-person Montreal company that imports and markets Fairtrade bananas. “We earn our keep by getting bananas from point A to point B,” explains Jennie Coleman, Equifruit’s president. “But what really drives us is the idea that we can change the banana industry. We’re trying to deliver a new, and sustainable, business model.”

Equifruit promises guilt-free bananas, produced by better-paid farmers in safe and green conditions. These are attributes most modern consumers support, at least nominally. They’re also traits of increasing appeal to grocery chains, especially those facing greater environmental, social and governance (ESG) scrutiny. Today, Farm Boy and its sister brand Sobeys carry Equifruit, as do Costco, Lufa Farms, and a raft of specialty and independent grocers. Last year, Longo’s, which operates 36 stores in the Greater Toronto Area, made a landmark decision to stock only Equifruit bananas. This has sparked admirable growth for the company—revenue grew by 139% between 2018 and 2021.

Equifruit is subverting one of the most established rules of food retail by getting folks to stop and think during what is typically a thoughtless decision. But as food prices surge and recession looms, the company’s MO will be put to the test: How the heck do you convince anyone to pay more for bananas?

As a food product, bananas are pretty perfect. They taste great. They’re nutritious. They travel well, come wrapped in free and compostable natural packaging, and—unlike almost any other fruit—when they get to the spotty side of ripe, they can achieve glorious reincarnation in bread form. It’s easy to get why they’re the most popular fruit in Canada, with a typical Canuck chomping more than 15 kilograms per year.

Bananas are cheap, typically half the cost of apples, and somehow they’re getting cheaper: Even when adjusted for inflation, the average retail price of bananas dropped by more than 25% from 1995 to 2021. Apples, meanwhile, increased by more than 35%.

The price factor helps to illustrate why, as a food business, bananas have some baggage. The economic history of the banana is singular and complex, with decades of geopolitical maneuvering and corporate consolidation culminating in (among other things) an expectation among consumers that a fruit grown thousands of kilometres away should sell for next to nothing. That comes at a cost: The banana industry has been extensively criticized for its unsafe work conditions, damage to ecosystem viability and its reliance on the exploitation of labour, including, sometimes, that of children. While the three major players in the banana industry—Dole, Chiquita Brands International and Fresh Del Monte Produce—have made progress in cleaning up their supply chains, many critics feel there’s still considerable work to be done. “The banana industry is deeply flawed and has been since its inception,” says Coleman. “It was basically founded on paying nothing for land through political machinations in Central and South America, and very, very little for labour, with no environmental oversight at all.”

For Equifruit, correcting this comes down to farm-gate economics—when farmers earn a living income, better labour and environmental performance tend to follow. It sources from co-ops in Ecuador and Peru, and from smaller farms in Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua. And its business model has fair wages for workers built in. Plus, for every 40-pound box sold, an additional US$1 Fairtrade social premium goes back to the community in which it was grown to reinvest in things like safe working conditions and sustainable production tactics. Equifruit’s contributions totalled US$428,000 in 2021.

Most people support such initiatives in principle; in practice, the connection can be lost. “It’s hard to get people to sympathize with farmers they don’t know, especially when those farmers are far away,” says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “And it’s tougher to get people to engage in the cause when inflation is at 10%, when budget-wise, they’re struggling. They’ll hear: ‘We’re trying to make sure that farmers get a fair share of the pie.’ And they’ll say: ‘Okay, but why is it my problem as a consumer?’”

Open this photo in gallery:

Jennie Coleman at the EquiFruit storage facilities in Montreal in July, 2022.Karene-Isabelle Jean-Baptiste/The Globe and Mail

Coleman might seem an unlikely general in this battle. In conversation, she is inquisitive and warm, with a vibe that’s more book club than boardroom. (When she mentions her master’s degree in library and information sciences, it tracks.) But talking to her for a few minutes quickly establishes that nothing about this woman should be underestimated.

Curiosity took Coleman to Namibia, fresh out of university, where she hustled to build a library of 5,000 books for students. Grit powered her through her corporate career, including a decade of progressive leadership at Bombardier around the world. And, when juggling a packed work itinerary with the needs of her three small children (one of whom is profoundly disabled) became too much, courage motivated her to pivot into entrepreneurship. An unconventional ad in the Sunbelt Business Brokers directory caught her eye: For sale, one small business with high ethical standards, suitable for someone looking for flexible work hours. She met with a business broker who—after some mutual gut-checks—put forward an opportunity to purchase a modest Fairtrade fruit import business (then known as Equicosta) from its mother-daughter founders. After years dealing in high-tech engineering, the simplicity of bananas appealed. “I had social justice roots early in my career, and I was attracted to the Fairtrade values,” Coleman says. “It felt like a lovely match.” The deal closed in December 2013.

The first year was rough; the business had been operating at subsistence levels, and navigating the opaque relationships and old-school mentalities of the produce business proved a steep learning curve. “I did wonder if I’d taken all our savings and flushed them down the toilet,” Coleman recalls. “But the wonderful thing about buying a business is that processes are already in place. It’s up to you to improve them. It might be someone else’s baby, but it’s your job to make it grow and to increase its value.”

Coleman hired Kim Chackal, a sales and marketing pro who quickly became her right hand. Together, they worked to strengthen relationships with retailers. They gradually extricated the business from some “really toxic” longstanding dealings with distributors who traded in sexist or regressive behaviour. (The company started applying a “no jerks” policy to any partnership in 2017.) The business stabilized and started to grow.

Then came COVID-19, which overnight quashed the trade shows and client visits that comprised the company’s business development efforts. This created an unexpected opportunity to pay some attention to Equifruit as a brand. “Our challenge is getting people to think differently about how they buy their bananas. That’s really our job,” Coleman says. “At first, we thought we’d use the quiet time to rebuild our website. Then we thought, What if we were to do something bolder?”

In the spring of 2020, Equifruit started working with TUX Creative, an agency based in Montreal and L.A. that, in Coleman’s words, “just got us.” The goal was to develop a comprehensive brand identity that would catch people’s attention and make them feel good about choosing Fairtrade—not guilted into it—with none of the earnestness or condescension commonly favoured in crunchier product categories. “We decided to live at the intersection of doing good and having fun,” says Stacy Gagnidze, TUX’s lead brand strategist on the project. Hence a website that opens with a screen of cartoon bananas. Hence a label with the claim “The only bananas sharks eat.” Hence produce boxes that could double as decor in a Gen Z influencer’s loft.

Every iteration of the brand—website, packaging, even the little sticker on each piece of fruit—is meant to pique curiosity and direct the audience to learn more. It’s gimmicky, yes, but not a gimmick. “If somebody’s having a bit of a laugh, you’ve opened the door to follow up with perhaps a more difficult message,” says Coleman. Once people are informed, she contends, “they’re more likely to say, ‘This doesn’t cost me a whole lot more. I can afford this. And this will have positive consequences on the supply chain.’”

Before going live, the team shopped the rebrand around to retailers. Not all approved—one executive said the bold design, and the implication that other bananas were unethical, made him sick to his stomach. But some, including the team at Longo’s, loved it.

Longo’s had been working with Equifruit for a few years, gradually introducing Fairtrade bananas into its produce mix—first organic, then conventional. The response was so consistently positive that by the time Equifruit unveiled its rebrand, Longo’s—which was preparing to launch its inaugural sustainability report—was ready to go all in. In the spring of 2021, it became the first retailer in North America to offer only Fairtrade bananas. Throughout the transition, strong messaging helped to dampen the sticker shock, says Mimmo Franzone, the chain’s vice-president of merchandising. “We needed to communicate to guests ‘Yeah, you were buying 69-cent bananas, and yeah, you’re now buying 99-cent bananas. But this is why we’re doing this, and this is how we’re giving back,’” Franzone says. “We had a bold plan. Equifruit had a bold marketing approach. It lined up perfectly.”

More than a year after switching exclusively to Equifruit, banana sales at Longo’s haven’t decreased a pound. Shoppers have noticed the change, Franzone says, but they’re not unhappy about it; of the thousands of customer comments that followed the transition to Fairtrade, only two were complaints.

Even with its recent growth, Equifruit still occupies a niche. Only about 2% of bananas in Canada are Fairtrade, compared to one-third in the U.K. and more than half in Switzerland. Increasing that market share will require scale, and Equifruit is chasing it. The company is working to partner with new grocery banners and to deepen its relationships with existing ones. U.S. expansion is an immediate priority; introducing other Fairtrade fruits, like mangoes, is on the radar, though not an imminent concern when there’s more banana turf to win.

Coleman likes to say that the company’s ultimate mission is “global Fairtrade domination”—a moonshot as valuable as any. But given the realities of the market, does she really think Equifruit can usurp Big Banana?

“Of course it’s an ambitious goal! We know what we’re trying to change is so big, it’s almost ridiculous,” she says. “Maybe this year, we’ll accomplish 0.0001% of that goal. That’s still more than if we hadn’t done anything.

“If we don’t think big, we’ll never change the small things. And so we go forward in good faith.” One boldly brandished banana at a time.

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