Saba is a hybrid of the genera Musa acuminata and balbisiana of the Cavendish group. Thus it has a mild tangy Cavendish taste. It stands out from other bananas because of its angular sides. It is between 8 and 13 cm long, about the length of a ballpoint pen, and looks rather stubby with a girth of between 2.5 and 5.5 cm. As a plantain, it is usually used to make fritters, chips and cakes.
Najib savoured a Sabah banana fritter during his walkabout at a Gaya Street coffee shop in Kota Kianbalu last year. He seemed to like its unique taste.
Yahya says that his ministry has long asked the Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority (Fama) to sell Sabah banana on the peninsula. But it was set back by high production and shipping costs which made Sabah banana uncompetitive.
A small trial shipment went to the southern Johor state in 2009 to test the market, followed by another in 2010, according to Sebastian Chew, the director of Fama in Sabah.
And Fama has achieved a breakthrough. Chew tells Insight Sabah that his agency made its maiden commercial shipment of Saba banana to the peninsula in March. And by the end of last month, 180 tonnes of the fruit costing 85,000 ringgit ($27,300) in ten containers have been sold to his peninsular customers.
This year Chew expects to sell about 300,000 ringgit worth of bananas to them, particularly those in Johor state whose banana plantations were hit hard by a mysterious disease in 2008. Manufacturers there turn the bananas into chips and condiments.
In fact, he has weekly orders for 80 tonnes of Saba banana from his peninsular customers. But farmers can only supply him with 40 tonnes every fortnight.
Recently, Fama signed a one-year contract with 150 farmers in Kudat, Kota Marudu, Kota Belud, Keningau and Tenom to grow and supply it with Saba banana. Chew says he can’t reveal the pricing but Fama guarantees the farmers a floor price and quantity.
Kaliwon Edi, an assistant director for permanent crops development in the agriculture department, says there are almost 3,200 hectares under banana cultivation, the second largest making up about 18% of 18,000 hectares of orchards. Durian is the most popular fruit grown on 4,310 hectares.
Only Kota Belud, about 58km from Kota Kinabalu, has the largest orchard of Saba banana at 673.5 hectares. Other districts have other Cavendish varieites. Kaliwon says the bananas can be harvested in nine or 13 months after planting. Farm price of Saba banana varies between 50 and 80 sen a kg, he says, adding that it sells for about 1.50 ringgit a kg in the market.
His department has identified another 50 hectares that are suitable for growing Saba banana. – Insight Sabah