Jennie Coleman: How Equifruit is Taking on Big Banana

Fifteen years ago, Jennie Coleman couldn’t tell you the first thing about bananas, let alone the intricacies of a complicated hundred-year-old global banana industry. Now she’s leading a movement to turn that very industry upside down – for the better.

Jennie Coleman is the president of Equifruit, one of Canada’s Top Growing Companies and the leading Fairtrade-certified banana importer in North America. Equifruit is on a mission to bring the banana industry into the 21st century and finally leave behind a centuries-old model that has prioritized low costs over fair wages and sustainable practices.

“The problem that we’re trying to solve is the hidden cost of cheap bananas,” she says. “Bananas are so cheap because small growers and plantation workers are essentially subsidizing our favorite fruit through low wages and poor working conditions and living the effects of toxic environmental practices. On the retail side, there is an expectation that bananas will always be priced low, supply chain consequences be damned. Equifruit is changing both ends of this supply chain.”

Since Jennie took over the business in 2013, Equifruit has grown from moving 50 containers of bananas annually to achieving that volume in just three weeks. This growth has had significant social impact, with Fairtrade premium contributions amounting to nearly 1 million CAD last year, benefiting small growers and plantation workers.

Social Entrepreneurship Roots
Jennie’s entrepreneurial urge was seeded early in her career while working at a primary school in Namibia. She was teaching English to teachers and helped set up a library at the school to get kids excited about reading.

“Seeing the kids basically line up at the library door, that was just amazing,” she says. “I think that’s where this urge for entrepreneurship came. It was a result of that project, where you go and identify a problem, you craft a solution, and then you implement it. And that’s really what business is about.”

A love for reading and books led her to pursue her master’s degree in library and information sciences. She has since realized it wasn’t just the books that she was passionate about; it was the impact. So after a successful career as a researcher and strategy consultant for McKinsey & Company and Bombardier, which brought her around the world from Switzerland to Berlin to Beijing, Jennie moved back to Canada with the intent to start her own business.

“I had all kinds of crazy ideas, but then I really just landed on Equifruit,” she says. An advertisement for a Fairtrade banana business resonated with her values and desire for flexibility, having just given birth to her third child. Jennie purchased the company in 2013. Kim Chackal, who has since become an equity partner, joined in 2014 and the two immediately set out to transform the business.

“That 2013 business is not the same one we’re managing today,” Jennie says. “The founders (also women, a mother-daughter team) put tremendous effort into getting the supply chain established and opening the market to Fairtrade bananas, but they weren’t growth focused the way we are.”

From Consultant to Top Banana
Jennie’s first foray into entrepreneurship was not without its challenges.

“The first two years, I was in a state of near constant panic about what I had just done and had a heavy dose of imposter syndrome,” she says. “And I realized running a small business is very, very different than being one cog in a massive corporate wheel.”

But with time, Jennie realized that things became easier the better she understood the problem and the more she focused on the big picture.

“If that becomes your mindset, it’s less about the specifics and really more about questions like, how can we effect change?” she says. “How can we grow so that the impact we’re having is material? Not just nice to have, but how do we positively affect and disrupt the banana industry?”

Partnerships with “Banana Badasses”
Since the banana business is not direct-to-consumer, Equifruit depends on retailers who understand the importance of prioritizing fair trade. Sobeys is one such partner.

“One of the first things I did was establish a direct relationship with Sobeys rather than go through a distributor,” says Jennie. “They’ve been true long-term partners of Equifruit and we’ll never forget, in those early days, their belief in our company and our values. They really sustained us in those early years through the volume that they were able to distribute. And that’s what you need. You need partners in order to have the impact that I hunger for.”

“It is a privilege to work with people who are passionate about building communities and making the world better,” says Sebastien Lachance, Category Manager at Sobeys Quebec. “Our longstanding partnership with Equifruit and Jennie’s team proves that we can accomplish great things when a shared vision and resources are put together.”

Certification as a Differentiator
Equifruit’s success has also been bolstered by getting certified by WEConnect International, where Jennie and her team found inspiration and support from a global network of female entrepreneurs. “We feel tremendous pride being among this community, and empowered by the accomplishments of others,” she says.

But certification also provided way for Equifruit stand out from others in the banana industry.

“The banana industry, and produce generally, is very, very heavily male dominated,” she says. “And a celebration of what makes us different felt very empowering. Look at the success that we’ve had, and we’ve done this through female ownership and female leadership.”

Looking Ahead
Jennie’s vision for Equifruit is ambitious. Recognized as one of Canada’s Top Growing Companies, Equifruit is set for continued expansion, with a 30% growth forecast for 2024. They are focused on expanding into the US market, with several promising partnerships on the horizon.

One critical element to their success and future growth: a strong, slightly irreverent brand. Their social media is full of humorous memes and videos, all creatively connected back to Fairtrade bananas.

“The lightness and humor is intentional,” Jennie says. “We want you to sit up and pay attention to us and we’re going to be bold, we’re going to grab your attention, and hopefully we’re going to make you laugh a little bit. And once that tension has gone down and you’re in the zone, then we’ll come through with a message.”

Advice for Women Entrepreneurs: Demand Respect
Now with more than ten years under her belt leading and transforming her own company, Jennie’s main advice for entrepreneurs is simple: Don’t work with jerks.

“I used to think this is what business is all about,” she says. “I just have to grow a thicker skin. If I want to play, I’ve got to have sharp elbows and suck it up.”

But instead, Jennie has learned where to draw the line and developed the confidence to call out poor behavior and demand the right to be spoken to with respect.

“If you’re working in a male dominated industry, you know that you’re going to make people uncomfortable,” she says. “Like it or not, 2024 or not, you’re going to make people uncomfortable. They’re going to react in a certain way that is sometimes just not right. Recognize your own value system and move away from people who are on the wrong side of history.”

Learn more about Equifruit at www.equifruit.com