Papaya: an exotic fruit. Grown in Jamaica. Eaten in the UK. However, all is not as it seems. How did that papaya come to your dinner table?
Papaya: an exotic fruit. Grown in Jamaica. Eaten in the UK. However, all is not as it seems. How did that papaya come to your dinner table? Who are the people behind it? What connects you with the farmer that grew it, the picker that picked it, the packer that packed it and the supplier that supplied it? What role do you play in this chain of people? Given the opportunity, what might you say to the person that grew your fruit?
Associate Professor of Geography Ian Cook of the University of Exeter spent six months in Jamaica working with women in a packing house where papayas were washed, graded, wrapped and boxed ready for export to the UK. However, when he returned to the supermarkets in Britain, those same papayas looked and felt very different to him. He knew that, behind them, there was a highly complex chain of people and things. He knew there was also an awful lot of poverty and hardship on the part of workers.
It was this experience that encouraged him to tell complex stories of people’s lives and global trade. These stories aren’t perfect or neat - they are complex and can be messy. However, they need to be appreciated. Ian hopes that his story of the papaya will encourage deeper appreciations of the work that goes into the things we buy and the geographical connections between them. He wants to help you bring these debates alive. The following article will lead you through the different stages of the export of papaya and through this you will also meet some of the people involved in its trade.
The papaya packer
The farm foreman
GDP per capita: $5,563 USD
Life expectancy at birth: 73 years
Agricultural land (% of land area): 41.5% Source: World Bank (2012)
We’re on a papaya farm. The 52 acre plot in Jamaica has ancient equipment rusting away inside. These are traces of the agricultural, export-oriented society Jamaica was set up to be when world trade was in its infancy during the 1500s. Global capitalism was just getting started back then.
But, in 1992 when Ian was conducting his PhD research, this land was still devoted to export agriculture. Jamaica was still a relatively impoverished country. However, where sugar cane used to be grown, Jamaica has now had to diversify its exports. Sugar is now a relatively uncompetitive industry kept afloat by policy interventions and subsidies.
Men - descendants of African people enslaved and brought to Jamaica to work on sugar plantations - are picking under the hot sun, for fresh exports to the USA and Europe. The papaya are twisted off the stem, just as they’ve turned from fully green, to green with a yellow streak - which indicates they are ready to pick.
The young papaya trees are 10 feet tall and picking is easy. But, in the next field, the trees are older and picking is done 30 feet up on a platform made from scaffolding, welded to a tractor trailer. Eight pickers leaning precariously off that platform, four either side. They’re jerked about as they move slowly along, looking for those colour changes.
Pru had two daughters, aged six and four. She couldn’t afford more children in the current financial climate. A weekly trip to the market cost more than she actually got paid for her work on the farm. The currency devaluation that was so good for the exports economy (by reducing the costs of exports for overseas buyers) meant that the prices of food and basic provisions had been inflated for Jamaicans.
The papaya farmer had given Pru and her colleagues above average pay rises, however, it was still difficult to keep up with the rate of inflation. Although, things could have been worse as she did have better pay and benefits than other agricultural workers, such as the sugar cane cutters.
Pru saw her kids off to school early every morning, and would return home after the boxes of papaya were packed; whatever time that was. It could be 9pm or 1am. Sometimes her children would stay at their grandmother’s in the evenings, unless her farm manager Philipps let her go home early.
Pru found work tiring, especially in the packing house. She didn’t enjoy her job and would prefer to work elsewhere – somewhere like the United States. However, without thousands of Dollars in the bank needed to enter the USA, she wasn’t entitled to a visa. Whilst the fresh papaya could travel the world by airplane, Pru stayed in Jamaica.
Philipps was the man Jim (the papaya farmer) trusted to deal with day-to-day decisions about job allocations, discipline, illness and time off. Phillips was a trusted worker that Jim had worked with before and when Phillips had needed expensive hospital treatment, Jim paid for it. This perhaps saved Phillips’ life and explains his loyalty to Jim today.
Phillips said that workers living on the poverty line are sometimes tempted by opportunities to increase their pay by being sneaky under his nose. He said they needed to be watched, in case they were up to something.
Farmers come and go. If there was a scandal and the press exposed child labour, dodgy management practices or below the breadline poverty of farm worker, a papaya farmer could easily be dropped from the export chain. Others went bust and if exchange rates changed their produce may became too expensive on the world market.
Jim ran the papaya farm with his wife. Their two young children were at primary school in Jamaica, but would probably get a secondary education in the US or UK later on – just like Jim had. He was a second generation white Jamaican and his parents had emigrated from the UK just after the Second World War.
Following some market research, Jim took his chance and rented the 52 acre farm from a wealthy white Jamaican friend in the hope that papayas would become popular in Europe. It was a successful gamble: local labour was easy to recruit, the Jamaican dollar had been devalued and exporters had been allowed to trade entirely in US dollars or sterling.
Jim spent most of his time ensuring he ran his business well so that he could produce what he’d promised – 1200 boxes in one shipment. That’s over 10,000 export quality fruits to be picked, processed and packed in a couple of days.
Tony’s family had been in fresh produce for three generations and he’d recently set up a specialist fruit importing business in a small suite of offices in central London. He spends a lot of time on the phone, talking to buyers and suppliers, as a sort of "middle-man". However, his company never handles the actual fruits – that is contracted out to a specialist "pre-packer".
Tony needs trust and confidence in the farmers that supply the fruit, like Jim. This requires personal contact, so Tony has to visit people and talk to them. He has to see what their farms are like, how they are run and how they could produce his fruit better.
The pre-packer picks up shipments from ports and airports, before trucking them to a central depot. The shipments are then unpacked and re-graded or rejected based on the quality specifications set by UK supermarkets.
Fruits of equal size and ripeness are placed together. A sticker is stuck on each with information and a barcode. Those fruits not yet ripe enough are placed together in huge, atmosphere-controlled ripening rooms.
Mina sometimes bought her Jamaican papayas through Tony. But importers like Tony used promotions to get their foot in the door and then increased the price later on. Mina said that was "taking the mickey," so she dropped Tony for a cheaper Jamaican papaya supplier.
Mina works at a supermarket HQ just outside London. Her job involves keeping everything on the shelves all year round, regardless of season. Most of this work revolves around her phone and computer. She keeps tabs on the market, checking what crops have done well in which parts of the world for that week. She needed to know what was coming from where, when and at what price and quality.
Occasionally, Mina goes on big trips with an expert in plant physiology and packing technologies. They visited the sites of production (such as Jim’s farm in Jamaica) to make relationships with the big suppliers and advise them on quality standards. Sometimes it might upset her – seeing all that poverty first-hand, knowing that she was directly involved. However, back at the office, these things were harder to see when faced with just the spreadsheets and computer screens.
Emma lives in a North London flat. She enjoys food and reads cookbooks for inspiration. In her lifetime, British food has internationalised and she loves it. Whereas Emma would happily buy a papaya, her grandmother wouldn’t even consider eating pasta.
Supermarket shoppers usually pass through the fresh fruit and veg first. They often come from all around the world. Like many people, Emma often imagined where her exotic food came from, believing she could experience faraway cultures. Through magazines and cookbooks she gets a picture in her mind. A taste of the tropics – delicious!
People in the trade expected papayas to go mainstream. Just like mangoes and kiwi fruits have. They get broken into the market through promotions: low prices and high volumes. £1 per fruit may feel too expensive for the consumer – it’s a psychological barrier. 99 pence, on the other hand, is good value.
However, the papaya isn’t always so simple. It can also be used in many more complex ways, such as an ingredient in: face-lift treatments, chewing gum, toothpaste, contact lens cleaning materials, indigestion remedies, canned meats, leather goods, shrink-resistant woolen fabrics and vegetarian cheese.
This story is not finished. Where does the papaya end up? What do you do with it? This story doesn’t even stop with papayas. The principals and lessons of this research can equally apply to other tropical fruits – bananas, kiwis, melons or pineapples. It’s worth looking beyond the "Made in Jamaica" label to explore how such fruits came to be with you.
Before reading this article, you knew you were connected with other places through trade; however this case study has illustrated some of the stages and people. People such as Jim, Phillips, Tony or Mina, plus many more people besides.
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