Banana ketchup and noni tea are two of the more bizarre new product concepts to come out of the Caribbean in recent years, as food exporters seek to compete in a globalised market through innovation. Wesley Gibbings reports.

Time was that food production in the Caribbean was dominated by commodities, with sugar and bananas the mainstays of these island economies.

Protected from the rigours of world markets by age-old ties to current or former colonial markets, these cash crop supply markets remained largely unchanged for centuries. But the last two decades have brought real change to the Caribbean food industry.

World Trade Organisation accession and globalisation have brought to an end the guaranteed markets in Britain, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere, and so island food sectors have been forced to innovate to survive. Fortunately, examples of success are not rare. There have been several very positive success stories in the form of Jamaican patties, Trinidadian confectionery and condiments, and some novel product ideas for bananas from the former UK colony St Lucia.

In St Lucia bananas, which in the heyday of preferential European markets were referred to as "yellow gold", are now being used as the base for, among other things, yellow ketchup by Baron Foods, and for the more familiar variety, reddened by anatto seed, by Viking Traders.

Both companies have been able to make serious inroads into British markets. Baron, in particular, has been successful in gaining distribution for its range of 150 products in Europe, North America, South America, Africa and the Caribbean. The company's managing director Ronald Ramjattan's stated goal is to be "a manufacturer of innovative Caribbean-style food products". Earlier this year, Baron teamed up with US giant Kraft Foods to develop a new line of salad dressings in what was touted as a significant breakthrough for the St Lucian food industry.

This is the kind of aspiration that is driving people like Dr Cecile La Grenade of Grenada who heads De La Grenade industries, a company that has pioneered the use of the 'pericarp', or pod of the island's famous nutmeg fruit. What used to be thrown away in the processing of nutmeg is now used in the manufacture of Morne Delice nutmeg jam, jelly and syrup.

The company has enjoyed major successes in the UK, US and Europe though La Grenade laments the absence of a strong presence in neighbouring Caribbean markets, which stems from haphazard shipping arrangements. "This is really a burning issue," she said. "Right now it is easier to ship to Europe than to the Eastern Caribbean."

Sea moss is another food category that has been developed in recent years. Back in 1995, Sea Sands Ltd of the tiny fishing village of Toco in north-eastern Trinidad garnered a major boost when it won a contract to provide sea moss to Nestlé Trinidad Ltd for the sea moss version of Nestlé's Supligen drink. Since then, the company has worked with researchers to develop a stable form of sea moss gel for use in the manufacturing process. Several other companies now market its gelatinised sea moss, which is sold throughout the Caribbean and in some parts of the US.

Today, Sea Sands is also exploring Caribbean markets for its 'noni' teabags, made from the leaves of the noni fruit. "We don't have much competition in this area, because people know much more about noni juice than they do noni tea," said Sharon Bravo-Phillips, who heads the company's herbal division.

The Caribbean Herbal Business Association has been formed to assist with everything from research and development issues to marketing advice and support.

Vassel Stewart, CEO of the Trinidad and Tobago Agribusiness Association, stresses how important it is for companies to work closely with institutions that can provide technical support, in particular the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), in areas such as commercialisation, quality and food safety.

While Caribbean communities in markets such as the US and Europe are clearly important to Caribbean food exporters, the key to major success is gaining mainstream consumer awareness.

"I think that two things are essential to making a product that can cross over from being just an ethnic product and become more widely accepted such as Tacos, burritos (and others like that)," said Gary Chin, president of the Jamaican patty producer Patty King. "Firstly, the product must be a high value product, meaning that the consumer must feel that they are getting good value in terms of quality and quantity for the price they pay. Secondly, the packaging and marketing of said product must show that the product is not only a good value but that they the consumers are already using products similar in their everyday life. Bridging that gap is the key to attracting new customers who have never heard of a particular product or brand."

Associated Brands Industries Limited (ABIL), of Trinidad & Tobago, has not steered too far away from the familiar, in its overseas markets. ABIL produces snack foods, chocolate confectionery, biscuits and breakfast cereals under the Sunshine Snacks, Charles Candy, Devon Biscuits and Sunshine and Universal Cereal brands, with a distribution network stretching from Belize, Surinam and Guyana to Malta, North Africa, the Middle East and Taiwan.

After being honoured as Caribbean Master Entrepreneur of the Year 2001, ABIL chairman Arthur Lok Jack was quoted as saying that globalisation offered "great benefits" to exporters based in small countries such as Trinidad & Tobago. His advice appears to have been heeded across this diverse and food-rich region.