Berlin - It was called the Great White Fleet because its ships were white to protect the bananas transported by the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International, from ripening. Chiquita is the largest producer of the most consumed fruit in the world, the banana. After a long financial battle, the group has now been owned by the Brazilian Cutrale family since 2014, and its headquarters has moved from the United States to Rolle, between Lausanne and Geneva. The GWT retains a small fleet of banana ships, but for “cold chain” purposes has now invested in container transport, to the extent that it has rented two 3,500-TEU vessels. “We are shipping company, to all intents and purposes,” explained Stefano Di Paolo, the president of GWT. Di Paolo is from Genoa and has had a long career at the group, before which at Clerici, and we met him at Fruit Logistica in Berlin.
What is the news for Italy?
“At the beginning of the year, we initiated a line on Maersk Line’s Car-Med service, with rotation from Manzanillo to the ports of Vado Ligure, Livorno, Civitavecchia, and Salerno, entirely dedicated to bananas. With this solution, we are no longer sending refrigerated vessels into the Mediterranean.”
Does this mean goodbye to banana ships for ever?
“Not at all, in Northern Europe we continue to operate the ships that we own, which come to a home port near Rotterdam with a capacity of 15,000 pallet positions. The goods go to Central Europe or to Scandinavia and Finland.”
If there were a similar facility in Italy could it replicate the same kind of sorting centre here in our country?
“I don’t think so, Italy needs a broader distribution network, so it’s important to have more points where the goods can be unloaded. Chiquita is very keen to maintain its retail channel: in short, our bananas are sold by the fruit seller directly.”
Does your fleet only consist of banana ships?
“We own four ships, but currently we are renting six: two with 400 outlets for refrigerated containers, two with 600 and two with 800, which is a truly huge number for this type of traffic: think of a ship loaded with 800 refrigerated containers, and in our sector there is no way... every week the fruit must be carried from the plantation to the fruit vendors’ stalls, summer and winter, a race against time to get there before it ripens. A monstrous amount of work makes it possible to eat a banana... And then an 800-reefer ship means that it has 3,500 TEUs of total capacity, and these numbers make us a shipping company, for all intents and purposes.”
So do you also carry freight other than fruit?
“In technical language it is called a southbound service: the two largest ships operate out of North America and sail to the countries where we produce the bananas. We carry the fruit from South to North, but we carry U.S. products that are consumed in Central and South America from North to South. And that is essentially where we compete with the major shipping lines, not least Maersk and MSC.”
Are you thinking of applying this strategy in other places as well?
“We are doing it on that route because it works, if other opportunities presented themselves, we would consider it.”
Which countries does Chiquita produce bananas in?
“Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Ecuador. Every year we export 140 million cases, and each weighs 20 kilos: that makes 2.8 million tonnes, we are the largest producer in the world.”
You work in Switzerland: do you miss your home?
“I certainly do not. I work in Switzerland, but I live in Genoa. I am a long-suffering Genoa supporter and I do all I can to remain there, even if it is still a city in decline.”