My name is Franck Hameni Bieleu, and I am a young Cameroonian filmmaker of 30 years old. I was born in Paris, when my parents were studying there. In 1982 they decided to return to Cameroon, where I grew up until I was 16 years old and returned to France for my schooling. One thing leading to the other, I ended up studying filmmaking in Great Brittain at the London Metropolitan University.
The very first documentary I made after finishing my studies is “What Hope for the African Youth” (2008), which talks about the despair of young Cameroonians and young Africans in general in the face of poverty, bad governance and corruption that are eroding their country. While I was shooting that film, I happened to come upon the story about some Mayor from a town called Njombé in the Littoral Province of Cameroon, who had been imprisoned, tried and condemned for standing up against a multinational. That seemed a very interesting topic to me, and I decided to make my next movie project about it.
It is ironical that « The Big Banana » was originally supposed to present the story of a Mayor fighting for this community, but has ended up becoming a documentary about the exploitation of bananas and its social-, economic- and environmental impact on the local community. Because, after a little research, it dawned on me that the Mayor's story was only the tip of the iceberg.
As I was gathering information about the topic, I discovered that Njombé-Penja is a town rich in natural resources due to its volcanic soil that is very fertile and favorable for fruit and vegetable production, i.e bananas, but its community is extremely poor.
The multinational, called Plantation du Haut Penja (PHP), of which the French Company Fruitière in Marseille holds 60%, while the American Dole Food Company owns in its turn 40% of Fruitière, allegedly did not pay local taxes to the municipality, which slowed down the town’s development and hardly allowed for any growth. On the other hand, the plantation workers were receiving a pathetic average monthly wage of 23000 CFA, which is less than the minimum set by the State, for a close to 14 hour working day.
To my great surprise, I also learned that the working conditions and salaries were not the only listed injustices in the region, there was something even more disturbing: the large scale expropriation of small farmers. In fact, due to increased demand on the European market, PHP is aided by local and national elected representatives who have their personal interest in the banana sector. For example the Minister of Commerce is the President of company’s Board of Directors, and the region’s Congressman is no one else than its Director for Foreign Affairs. They ease the process of expropriation of Cameroonian small holders, and whoever resists such decision finds himself jailed, just like the Mayor.
My investigations into the expropriation of farmers, allowed me to come upon RELUFA in Njombé. I was pleasantly surprised to run into a collaborator of RELUFA, who shared with me about their initiative called “Fair Fruit”. Fair Fruit brings together two distinctly different groups of producers, the one being fruit farmers and the other fruit processors, and it facilitates the export of the dried fruit to the US, where it is sold through their distributor, Partners for Just Trade. I was particularly drawn to the initiative because the two groups of producers are made up of families who have been expropriated by PHP and the initiative gives them the upmost opportunity to earn some income and create a micro-economy that is independant from the mass productions by PHP.
My encounter with RELUFA could easily be seen as a symbiosis. Many of the people featuring in the documentary have been introduced to me by them, and RELUFA meticulously arranged for me the connections to be able to meet up in the US with their trade partners. This allowed me to show the routing of the production from the grassroots in Njombé to the consumers in the US and I am deeply grateful to them for that. By including this initiative in my documentary, I wanted to show one of the many alternatives to circumvent the omnipresent transnational company. I sincerely believe that if this kind of initiative could be multiplied, the community of Njombé Penja could only benefit.
My interest in making this kind of documentaries is solely to inform the public, and to trigger debate so that this sector will be reformed to improve the living conditions of the local residents in these regions. Their voices do not carry far enough to be heard. I hope with all my heart that the film will play its role and will not have been made in vain for the sake of the people in Njombe. Consumers in the West have the power to influence the multinational thugs by calling out to them and if necessary by boycotting bananas that are the product of human exploitation.