There was a time when bananas were an unknown and exotic fruit that Westerners got very excited about. Nowadays, the banana is the world’s most popular fruit and it has established a healthy lead over the far more traditional apple and orange. But how did this ‘small town boy’ from the tropics of South and Central America make it to the big time?
If you travel in the Amazonas regions you’ll see a wide of variety of different bananas (big ones, small ones; green ones, red ones) but all of these weird cultivars belong to one of two species. Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. The first of these refers to the soft bananas which we are accustomed to eating, while the second describes plantains – harder, larger bananas which cannot (usually) be eaten raw. You’ll almost certainly be served plantain in some form while you’re in South America, where it used as an alternative source of starch. I’m particularly fond of the deep fried chips. To read more about banana varieties, check out this interesting article.
The banana will forever be linked to an economic phenomenon which plagues many developing countries. The term ‘banana republic’ was first used by the American writer O. Henry, to describe the fictional Republic of Anchuria in a book which was inspired by Henry’s time in Honduras in 1896/7. A banana republic is defined as:
A politically unstable country, whose economy is largely dependent on exporting a limited-resource product, e.g. bananas. It typically has stratified social classes, including a large, impoverished working class and a ruling plutocracy of business, political, and military elites. This politico-economic oligarchy controls the primary-sector productions to exploit the country's economy.
In real life a number of Latin American countries are dependent on banana exports (e.g. Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala) but Ecuador stands head and shoulders above the rest, with a staggering 29% of the global export market. There are certainly similarities between the definition above and the situation on the ground in some of these countries. Say no more.
And the answer to our opening question? Simple. The reasons for the banana’s global dominance are many: it’s cheap and easy to produce and transport; it tastes delicious and it’s extremely nutritious. Here’s a fascinating article about the economic role of the banana.