MONTREAL — Now that she’s learned the banana business from the ground up, Danielle Marchessault says importing avocados and grapefruit feels like a vacation.
The enthusiastic founder of Equicosta, based in Drummondville, brought in Quebec’s first organic Fair Trade bananas in December 2007, and now imports one to two containers a week from Ecuador and Peru.
She and her daughter Julie also are working with co-operatives in Mexico to import avocados and red grapefruit this winter, and are considering Costa Rican pineapples.
Marchessault’s passion for helping people has been lifelong, starting with more than 20 years in community development in Quebec, working with families and organizing literacy and computer programs.
“After awhile I wanted to do something international,” she said, “so I went back to school, to Concordia University, for a degree in economic community development.”
Julie, meanwhile, worked in international relations, and got her first look at how the Fair Trade program can change people’s lives while visiting Mali. While the village she was in was poor, the neighboring village was richer and well-organized, and the kids went to school.
The two decided to go into business together, and hired a consultant to teach them how to do it. They also spent six months visiting six co-operatives, building relationships and explaining the importance of packing a perfect banana.
“Even if you have a fantastic cause,” she said, “if the fruit doesn’t look and taste perfect, it won’t sell.”
They also learned how bananas are grown organically. Simple tricks include setting out honey traps to catch flies and applying grape seed extract to prevent crown rot.
Since the smallest load they could import was one container, the Marchessaults then had to find a market for 1,000 boxes of bananas.
Over the next year, they built their business with postcards. At every trade show and university event they could find, the duo showed photos from their trip and handed out cards with a photo of South American workers on one side and a polite note on the other telling produce managers that if they carried Equicosta bananas, the person who signed the card promised to buy them.
When enough produce managers, including the Sobey’s grocery chain, had called requesting orders, the duo brought in their first container of Fair Trade organic bananas. The fruit is ripened at J.B. Laverdure Inc. in Montreal and distributed through Gaetan Bono.
Of course, business hasn’t always been easy. “We have to fight in a jungle, and it’s not only down south,” Danielle said.
When a big Montreal importer began importing and selling Fair Trade bananas at a much lower price, Daniel couldn’t lower hers, which is set by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, along with a dollar-per-box social premium.
When the recession hit, she was also concerned about sales. But she didn’t need to worry.
“Even with an economic crisis and a higher price, our sales did not go down,” she said. “That’s because the consumer knows why he or she is buying Fair Trade bananas. They know the product is good quality and that their action has a direct impact on the lives of farm families.”
Her latest challenge came from U.S. Customs, which spent months last winter inspecting every load.
“Our papers were always in order, so we couldn’t understand why it was happening,” she said. “It was a six-month nightmare ... some days we felt like we were paying them to import.”
Equicosta’s only option was to fulfill the rigorous requirements, mountains of paperwork and background checks required for Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism certification against terrorist threats.
“Now our containers are checked much less often,” she said.
As she prepares to receive her first load of avocados and grapefruit from Mexico, the learning curve continues. But every hard day brings an e-mail from a Quebec consumer looking for Equicosta bananas, or thanking her for her hard work.
“It’s encouraging to know that people believe in what we’re doing,” she said.