Booming business turning unloved Queensland bananas into flour
Krista lives with husband Rob and two young daughters on a 300ha banana plantation at Walkamin, an hour’s drive from Cairns.
Late one summer afternoon in 2010, Rob accidentally drove over a dried hand of lady finger bananas on the bitumen. The green bananas exploded in a puff of dust.
“It was to be, literally, our ‘eureka’ moment,’’ the 32-year-old businesswoman tells QBM.
Little did Rob know, as he watched that cloud of white banana flour dance in the haze of the setting sun, they were on the cusp of a new dawn in agricultural innovation.
“He ran inside, where I was cooking dinner, holding this crunched bunch of banana,’’ Krista says.
“Taste this, taste this, he said. I dipped my finger into the flour. It tasted good – earthy and wholesome.
“We just looked at each other and went, ‘Wow’.”
Eight years later, the Watkins are enjoying the fruits of their labours.
“Our company, Natural Evolution, was the first in the world to commercially produce green banana flour,” Krista says. “We live in a small farming community, so to take an idea, create it into something marketable and then design the technology has been very exciting.’’
The couple flew to New York last year to receive a Gold Edison Award – named in honour of inventor Thomas Edison – for innovation and excellence.
Every week in Australia about 500 tonnes of perfectly good green bananas are dumped by farmers because they are “too big, too straight or too bendy for the supermarket giants”.
“I know how painful it is throwing out all those beautiful bananas,’’ Krista says. “As farmers, we invest time, energy, and love in producing them, and then to throw it away, it was a real kick in the teeth every time.”
The Watkins’ farm now has a $2.8 million, 800sq m factory – run by four full-time staff – which features patented NutroLock technology. This is an in-line, cold, raw, low-speed food processing technique designed by Rob that turns green bananas into flour and resistant starch. Rob also built a machine that can peel green bananas, cutting down on hours of manual labour.
“We could not afford to pay 50 people to peel bananas, but through our technology, we solved a huge piece of the puzzle.” The facility, down the road from the family farmhouse, can produce eight tonnes of banana flour a week, with 10kg of bananas making 1kg of flour.
“NutroLock can take green bananas – or any other fruit or vegetable – to powder in under 25 minutes, with minimal labour and a minimum output of one tonne per eight-hour shift with a two-person workforce. “Originally we were producing about 350kg per week; now we can produce eight tonnes in a single week.”
Last year the company transformed 80 tonnes of lady finger bananas into five key products: flour and cake pre-mixes, resistant starch, an ointment, and vegan protein mix. With 2017 their first trading year, that 80-tonne figure is set to double this year, with demand soaring. They have plans to finalise distributors in the US and Canada this year.
In March, Krista was named Queensland’s 2018 Rural Woman of the Year, and she is now a hot contender for the national AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year award, to be announced in October.
Krista has now turned her war on waste onto the sweet potato market. About 300 tonnes of the crop is ploughed back into the soil in the Atherton Tablelands alone because of size, shape or oversupply. In Bundaberg, the largest sweet potato growing region, that figure is much higher. “Reducing waste or, as I see it, repurposing produce is going to be incredibly important in the future for agriculture,’’ Krista says. “It will provide new revenue streams and create opportunities, as well as ensuring sustainability into the future.
“I feel it is incredibly important to show my daughters, women and the world that being a farmer is more than driving a tractor; we are strategic, we are strong, we are world class.”